Cover The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay. Image: Grant Associates and WilkinsonEyre

Matthew Potter, director of WilkinsonEyre Hong Kong, had led the team designing the Cooled Conservatories at Gardens by the Bay, in collaboration with Grant Associates. We glean insight on how the firm integrates high-tech solutions with emotive design in their work

Architect Matthew Potter credits his experimental physicist father for his career choice. “His fascination with how things work must have rubbed off me. He encouraged me to study architecture for its combination of arts and science,” shares the director of WilkonsonEyre’s Hong Kong office. Potter headed to University College London Bartlett, thriving under the tutelage of trailblazing architects such as Sir Peter Cook, the founder of the 1960s Neo-futuristic architecture group Archigram.

He spent the last 16 years with WilkinsonEyre, which was founded in UK in 1999 by Chris Wilkinson and Jim Eyre. Having worked on projects such as the Guangzhou International Financial Center (IFC)—one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers—and Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, he is now part of the Sentosa-Brani Master Plan team. Led by landscape architecture firm Grant Associates, the project will reinvent the Sentosa and Pulau Brani Islands into a recreational destination built upon the island's intrinsic tropical biodiversity.    

Could you tell us more about some key experiences that helped shape your understanding of architecture?
Matthew Potter (MP) I worked at a number of small practices in London, and enjoyed the detail and focus on the materiality of smaller projects. I worked for a year in Tokyo for Itsuko Hasegawa Atelier and was amazed by how architecture can connect—and even integrate—with nature and the changing seasons.

The visual resolution of structural geometries within a building has always fascinated me and is one of the reasons I joined WilkinsonEyre in 2004. At WilkinsonEyre, one of my earliest projects was the Guangzhou IFC, where I helped define the geometry for the double-curve facades and the primary diagrid structure. It was the first time I had worked on a project of such a significant scale and complexity.

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WilkinsonEyre produces many large-scale works. In your opinion, can a skyscraper be artistic and humane?
MP Architecture should bridge art and science, so I would say ‘yes’. Often, the simplest solutions are the best, but they can be the hardest to find.

Creating spaces that connect emotionally with people is incredibly important to us, and this can be done in different ways: from spaces that make you catch your breath at the sheer scale (entering the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay or looking up the atrium of the Guangzhou IFC), to the fit and texture of a door handle in your hand such as in the King’s Cross Gasholders in London (where) redundant cast-iron structures are converted into high-end residential apartments. We want our architecture to be pragmatic but in a manner that is memorable and enhances the lives of the people who use it, no matter how fleeting. 

(Related: How Architects Have Made High-Rise Living More Comfortable in Singapore With Their Designs)

Tell us more about your Singapore projects—what are the experiences you've gleaned while working on the Gardens by the Bay project, that are relevant for the Sentosa-Brani Master Plan?
The user experiences are both centred on introducing visitors to different aspects of the natural world, such as its abundance and beauty. The difference between daytime and nighttime experiences is a key consideration because the contrast in temperature introduces different possibilities (in both projects).

For example, creating shaded routes that link to one another is key to the daytime experience. Night-time visits permit freer exploration, the opportunity to play with artificial light that was spectacularly optimised at Gardens by the Bay, and programming a mix of dramatic, active, exciting spaces and quieter, calmer, more immersive ones.  

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How do you see architecture and urban design reacting to the Covid-19 pandemic situation?
MP It’s still early to be sure how things are going to change. Given the time frames involved in setting a brief, designing, procuring and building, there is always a lag with the built environment. However, it seems inevitable that there will be some adjustments to both how and what we design. In terms of how we design, we are just scratching the surface of how we work with a widely used digital interface. In terms of what we design, I’d like to think how we have had to live and work over the last few months will manifest in positive changes in our future-built environments.

Isolation has been incredibly tough for some people and we should make new spaces where people can meet and still feel part of a community but in a safe way. There will also be a lot of adapting, refurbishing and repurposing of existing spaces. With a shift to more flexible working, our offices could be smaller and more spacious. In our homes, we need flexible working spaces, better connection to the outdoors and better ways of receiving deliveries. Our cities need wider pavement with more space for restaurants to spill outdoors.

There’s a fantastic sequence in David Attenborough’s ‘Cities’ episode on Planet Earth that shows wildlife returning to urban gardens. As terrifying as Covid-19 has been, hearing of nature creeping back to our cities has been magical and reminds us to thread more lightly and make room in our planning for wildlife.

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