Blueprint Innovation Interviews at Arper: Andrew Whalley

Andrew Whalley, deputy chairman of Grimshaw, discusses what innovation means to him and
how nature has inspired the work of the practice from the very beginning


Andrew Whalley is deputy chairman of Grimshaw and has been an instrumental part the practice since its earliest days - including working on the iconic Eden Project - and has been Partner-in-charge of the New York Office for 10 years.

He has also led development of the Grimshaw portfolio in the Middle East, setting up a Doha office in 2011. He has also guided a series of international exhibitions of the partnership’s work, and leads Grimshaw’s Industrial Design Unit at partnership level.

Innovation has been at the very core of our practice from the outset. Looking back on Nick Grimshaw’s very first project, to convert an old Edwardian building for foreign students, he came up with a service pod that literally plugged on to the back of the building. It was an innovative piece of design that harnessed industrial design as well as architecture.

Andrew Whalley.Image Courtesy GrimshawAndrew Whalley.Image Courtesy Grimshaw

That’s continued throughout our work, through our industrial projects to our very first large-scale infrastructure commission — the Waterloo Terminal in London. In many cases we learned by looking backwards, so the roof of Waterloo, which twists and turns, actually learns from the great Victorian glass houses which use glass like shingles rather than trying to create a pure surface. That allowed us to create a very economical and quick-to-build roof. We had to find an innovative way of connecting that glass skin to a structure. We came up with a whole series of cast components, and actually, the foundry that made them, their other major line at that time was the manufacture of hip bones, so it shows the level of precision that was involved.

That was, I guess, the beginning of our focused department in industrial design. We were approached by the Eden Project after they’d seen Waterloo. They had this initial idea of creating really something quite special in Cornwall to allow a showcase of entire biodiverse environments. We’d been interested in ETFE foil as a new way of creating much lighter-weight, high-performance structures. Again we felt in the same way as our Victorian forbears, who had always innovated, that we should create something that uses the material in the best way to create the lightest possible structure.

In many ways we’re inspired by nature. Nature is a great teacher because nature is always trying to do things in the optimum way, trying to find the most efficient way of doing things. I think that also then leads to the most elegant solution, because an optimised light-weight structure is also inherently very elegant and that’s why we find nature so beautiful.

Some of the ideas at Eden, such as the way that the domes interconnect like soap bubbles were also influenced by all of the research work done under Frei Otto at the Institute for Lightweight Structures. As a student that was a huge influence on my work, and they produced a great series of books that explored the connection between nature and architecture.

Innovation and design ingenuity is going to be more and more important as we go forward. Of course we have this incredible pressure on the planet and its resources with the population rising by an expected 30 per cent or so in the next generation, and all of that growth is going to be living in cities.

I think as architects we have to come up with new ways of designing things, new ways of organising cities, new ways of creating neighborhoods, new concepts for buildings, and all of them have to be very light in the way they touch the planet, using minimal resources so we can create a sustainable future.

Visual of Grimshaw’s work on Crossrail. Image Coutesy: Crossrail
Visual of Grimshaw’s work on Crossrail. Image Coutesy: Crossrail

Back in the late Eighties we were probably one of the first practices to really explore the use of environmental systems to fashion an architecture. That was for the British Pavilion at the World Expo in Seville where we used solar panels to actually cool the building and a water wall as part of an environmental system that produced an entire architectural vocabulary for that building.

Last year we were approached for the World Expo in Dubai to put forward ideas and proposals for a sustainability pavilion. In many ways you might think creating a sustainability pavilion in that very harsh climate is almost an oxymoron, but we felt if we can actually create something truly sustainable in that environment, then it shows you what can be done in any environment. We’re living on a planet that’s going to become more and more arid, so coming up with solutions that can work in that kind of challenging climactic condition is becoming more and more important.

Again, I think nature was quite an inspiration. We almost thought of this shading device over the entire enclosure that acts as the environmental system, so it’s almost like a leaf. It provides all of the power that the facility needs. And there’s a great number of analogies that you can find — there’s the Namibian fog beetle, that lives in the desert and uses its skin to both attract moisture and form water droplets.

As cities become denser it’s becoming more and more important to make them sustainable and somewhere we enjoy living. A key component to that is transportation. In London at the moment we’re working on the Crossrail project. We’ve come up with a system of precast concrete panels that in a way influence and direct people through the space and reflect that idea of movement. As well as being an elegant solution, it’s very pragmatic, as we can mass produce and repeat components.

I also think that one of the things we benefit from at Grimshaw is that we have quite a diverse range of different skills and disciplines — as well as a core of architects, we have industrial designers, engineers and urban designers, and I think that allows for an interesting conversation and dialogue. One of the things we do is ask for proposals of areas that people would like to focus on in terms of research. Those are put forward and debated by the partners, so that we have different architects and industrial designers teaming together looking at very focused research pieces.




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