Chris Williamson is a founder Partner of Weston Williamson+Partners who celebrated their 30th anniversary last year.
Here he talks to WAN about current and future transport and infrastructure projects:
Is there one particular project that you are most proud of?
We are working on some of the world’s most exciting infrastructure projects in HS2, Crossrail 2 and the Elizabeth Line, on Sydney Metro and Melbourne Metro, and also in Singapore. But our involvement in this sector started back in 1990 when Roland Paoletti (who sadly died in 2013) chose us to design the Jubilee Line Station at London Bridge. We were just starting our careers and he took a bit of a leap of faith in us. Roland was impressed with our competition entry for a bus station at the Piazza Roma in Venice. We were the youngest practice to work on the Jubilee Line and he took an interest in our progress. I think he appreciated our passion and naive way of being undeterred by quite a bureaucratic system. For us London Bridge was incredibly exciting - like doing five projects in one. We refurbished and restored the Victorian arches to form the main ticket hall and built new prefabricated brick arches to achieve good clear routes. We designed an innovative cast iron cladding system which was used as a basis for the stations at Westminster and Waterloo. I seemed to spend all my evenings presenting to special interest groups, English Heritage or the now defunct Royal Fine Art Commission. Roland had written the brief to expose the civil engineering wherever possible so we spent a lot of time with the engineers to make sure it was beautiful. The contract was written to state that anything we designed for London Bridge could be used elsewhere - so the services boom, seats and signage were used on other stations. We also designed a new ticket hall under Borough High Street in precast and in situ concrete - trying to envisage what the great Victorian designers would create if they had access to modern materials and techniques. The project won great critical acclaim and awards but more importantly was the start of repeat business from a satisfied client in London Underground and Transport for London. Also many of the Engineers with whom we worked moved to do other great projects - some abroad - and have asked us to continue working with them. Apart from the Jubilee Line, I have a great affection for the East London Line, which has transformed the East End of London for a relatively modest outlay and reuses some Victorian infrastructure previously disused.
How important is transport as a sector within your practice?
Transport and related projects constitute about 65% of our work. Creating civilised cities is something we are passionate about and good efficient public transport is a major part of this. Charles Montgomery says in his excellent book Happy City – “Rome rose as its wealth was poured into the common good of aqueducts and roads, then declined as it was hoarded in private villas and palaces”. Infrastructure helps define the city. If the systems work, beauty and humanity follows. The Roman and Greek - indeed all great civilisations - appreciated this. We enjoy these city-defining projects as well as the challenge of working alongside multiple stakeholders, and the disciplines of budget and programme. And accountability. It has also allowed us to become involved in fantastic projects abroad and in compatible sectors. As more urbanisation occurs, well designed, affordable public transport will be essential in combating climate change, producing liveable cities with good air quality. We are passionate about well designed public transport as a way of creating great cities and are fortunate that we have been able to forge a living doing something we love. I’m excited about being a judge on the Transport panel of the WAN Awards and will be interested to examine all the schemes in detail.
What are the biggest challenges posed by modern Transport and Infrastructure projects?
Realising great Transport Oriented Development and capturing value. When we first worked on the Jubilee Line it was seen as a transport project - the movement of people. Consequently many private developers profited due to the public investment in infrastructure. On a modest level Weston Williamson were beneficiaries, designing and building our own offices in Southwark. Projects such as Crossrail 1 and 2 are seen much more as regeneration projects and have captured significant contributions from the private sector through CIL and business rates. The other challenge is accurate forecasting, which is related to the above. I remember long discussions whether we should have 20 or 22 ticket barriers at London Bridge. Fifteen years later the answer would be 30. The investment in good infrastructure has been very successful. We believe that current plans for the areas around high speed stations south of Birmingham and Ebbsfleet are too unambitious and will do little to provide much needed quality housing in the UK. At the moment 15,000 homes are proposed at Ebbsfleet when so many more are possible and are necessary. We have devised an internal research project to show how this could be 10 times the current proposal. There are incredibly exciting regeneration possibilities arising from these infrastructure projects.
What are you working on now and are any of your current transport projects near to completion?
Crossrail (or the Elizabeth Line as we should call it) will be complete in 2018. We have designed and are delivering the stations at Paddington in the West and Woolwich in the East. Crossrail will not only transform how people move around the city but how the city is used and perceived. I particularly like the strap-line "world class affordable railway” - this is what every city in the world should aspire to. The Chief Architect of Crossrail, Julian Robinson, calls our station at Paddington “The Jewel in the crown of Crossrail” which considering the other fantastic stations on the line is quite an accolade. Crossrail continues the fantastic patronage of design by TFL which began on the Underground with Frank Pick and Charles Holden and whose iconic designs have helped make London the world’s leading city. As the 1960s and ‘70s showed us, it is possible to provide transport infrastructure without bringing joy into travel. It is good to see that customer experience is now recognised in London and elsewhere as an essential component in getting people out of cars and onto efficient, well designed public transport as a civilised way to move around the city. It is interesting to see how many engineers from London are working abroad, especially in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia. We have recently won a project to extend the Dubai Metro to their Expo 2020 site, including the iconic Expo station. In Singapore, we have been working on the high speed link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, including the TOD opportunities above and around the stations.
What do you see as the next breakthrough in transport?
I think the greatest effect on our cities will be how we move around them and between them. The economist Paul Buchanan explains that we have traditionally travelled around one hour to work - whether walking, or on horseback, or cycling, or motor-borne transport. There will be transformational advances in how we travel over the next 10/20 years. Greater speed of travel will increase the reach of this hour and will offer more choice of where to live and work and help spread the wealth and opportunities. When you consider the technological advances in how we work and envisage how that will translate into travel and transform cities... computers, televisions, radio, mobile phones, cameras and other technological advances have transformed how we live. But the biggest change will be the way we move between and around cities. Automated vehicles, robotics, drones, the hyperloop. Travel has probably had the biggest affect on our cities as it has dictated land use and planning for over a century, and will continue to do so. Some of these changes can be predicted but others allow such immense possibilities - it is only possible to forecast change without the knowledge of what that change will be. But it suggests great possibilities to architects. We must meet these challenges to combat climate change attributable to population growth and the move from rural communities to large urban complexes. I was 12 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the experience gave me great optimism in the resourcefulness of our designers and engineers that we can meet any challenge. A research project we are doing with Thyssen Lifts developing innovative lift technology allows personal transportation from, say, metro platform level to various designated locations in surrounding towers. These new lifts are pulled horizontally as well as vertically by electro magnets. This technology will transform the way we move around tall buildings with the same impact as driverless cars will have on the physical environment of our cities. Weston Williamson have recently drawn up a scheme for a hyperloop (a vacuum tube with a Maglev train travelling at 1000k per hour between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, which will change the way people commute and choose to live in the east of Australia. The numbers of people travelling on planes between these cities is astonishing - and the need to combat climate change will be a spur to these advances. It’s a cause of some concern, especially post-Brexit, that the UK doesn’t appear to be investing heavily in these new technologies - especially automated vehicles. To some it sounds like science fiction, but elsewhere designers and engineers are making it work. It really will enable us to civilise our cities and create more beautiful spaces with great air quality. The future is green. And pleasant.