Issue 85, 19 November 1999
The disease of a thousand faces «
Shimmer project to launch in 2000 «
People in profile «
Fleming's early research is honoured «
Library changes «
New facility «
Hats off to the Civil Engineering Contractors' Association «
A word with Chris Wise «
Regular Features
In Brief «
Media Mentions «
Noticeboard «

A word with Chris Wise

Not content with designing moving bridges in Italy and constructing mighty Roman relics of which Caesar would be proud, Chris Wise is now offering Imperial College students the chance to work with him and his new company this summer.

"I'm hoping to take some students into our practice for work experience in summer 2000," says the professor of creative design at Imperial.

Chris Wise
Chris Wise challenges engineering students to think differently about design and work with him at his new company next summer
"It's an incentive for them to come up with ideas. If they come up with a great one, we'll ask them to work on it. They can come to our office and get paid."

Working with Chris Wise may seem a daunting prospect. His mind travels at the speed of light from one dynamic thought process to another. His students may leave classes exhausted but at least they'll be enlightened. Their teacher likes to challenge with projects which seem impossible.

Current students might soon tackle designing a bridge to span the Grand Canyon. Chris wants them to use their heads, and find a wild way of bridging the eight mile gap. No idea will be ruled out completely.

"I give projects not lectures. We design things where we don't know what the answer is going to be. Students are given a series of little tools but are not taught how to weave things in.

"I tell them not to bring rulers or calculators but butter paper and felt tip pens.They have to design completely free hand using their common sense - it brings aesthetics and engineering together on a wave."

The man behind the 'flattest suspension bridge in the world' - the 142m Millennium Bridge which spans the Thames from St Paul's on one side to the new Tate on the other and is due for completion next May - believes a holistic approach to teaching is the way forward.

Last year's first year students offered such interesting ideas for one project, they were compiled into a winning formula by Chris. A month ago, they helped win a European competition to design a new electricity pylon in Italy.

"People think that if you design something that stands up it's good enough - but it's not. I want students to look at a project and ask what it means environmentally and socially, even whether they have the right to do it at all or if there's a better way to do it.

"I want to give students confidence so they offer solutions rather than act as a break on something. It's just a different way of solving something."

Solving things has meant leaving Ove Arup and setting up a design firm with colleagues Chris Smith and Sean Walsh from the same firm. Unnamed for a while, they settled on Expedition.Tall mountains, like tall buildings, have always featured on Chris's agenda. He spent August 20,000 feet up in Pakistan near K2 and various glaciers with six colleagues, 50 porters, three cooks and three guides. He stopped breathing for a quarter of a minute due to high altitude and played football with bags of peanuts - the air inside had inflated the packets into small balloons.

"We left Arup as we wanted some independence.We wanted the freedom to make our own decisions without having to consult too widely. We wanted to have our cake and eat it.

"Another 25 years in Arup would be repeating what I'd already done. I didn't want to get to 70 and realise I'd chickened out because it was all too cushy.

"I want to use what I can do and free it up.There's so much treacle in Arup but in a very nice way - the process was slow. Before I get to 108, I want to do things faster."

There's every chance of that. The commission for the moving Italian bridge near Pisa at Viareggio is a stone's throw from one of Tony Blair's holiday destinations.

Chris is awaiting a decision on a moving roof over a square bigger than a football pitch in Stockholm which opens and closes according to the seasons. He was also strategic adviser for Madrid's Barajas airport.

His company has been commissioned to design a conference centre with its auditorium inside two timber clam shells at Worcester College Oxford. Expedition is also shortlisted to design a railway station outside Brussels and is working with a French architect to try and secure the commission for the county hall in Lille.

Chris applauds the cross fertilisation of ideas between engineers and architects and will be speaking at conferences in Chicago on technology transfer at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"They think Europeans are better at design than Americans so they're trying to get people from MacLaran and NASA. One nobel prize winner of atomic physics is very interested in the parallels of atom structure being similar to engineering."

Television appearances are making him a household name. Earlier this month, he appeared on BBC 2's Secrets of Lost Empires recreating Caesar's crossing of the Rhine by building a replica bridge over the River Tyne without modern technology.

He also constructed a roof over the Coliseum in Rome: "the top slides back as if on a Porshe 911", for a programme earlier in the series. He's now talking to BBC2 about two 50 minute programmes entitled 'beautiful concrete.'

Chris is also talking to October Films about a programme on creativity, with a friend who wrote the music for the film 'Eyes Wide Shut.'

He has also worked on a 30m high abstract sculpture to fit in a crater in a Sussex sculpture park and designed the Crystal Gate in Sunderland; an 18m high version of Stonehenge with semi-reflective plates of glass due for completion in the summer of 2001.

"I want to do big pieces of public art to push technology beyond known limits and transfer it back to architecture. It's easier to experiment with arts than buildings - people are prepared to take bigger risks."

He would have liked to have done an arts degree before studying engineering. "I'd have had a better understanding, I don't have the training in sensitivity to know when intutition is telling me to do something daft. Still, I do have a healthy disregard for logic when it suits me. It's called being wilful."

He wants to raise the percentage of people at Imperial who try engineering as a vocational degree. "Engineers are highly sought after. I'm trying to get them to give it a bash."

If anyone can persuade them, it's Chris Wise.

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