Chris Williams is an Artistic Professor at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Chalmers University. Chris joined Ted Happold’s group at Arup in 1972 where he worked on Frei Otto’s Multihalle gridshells in Mannheim and was responsible for the structural analysis and physical model testing. In 1976 he came with Ted Happold to the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath. His research interests hinge on the relationship between geometry and structural action as applied to towers, bridges and fabric and shell structures, as well as the response of these flexible structures to wind. His work in the generation of structural form through biological and other analogies has led to collaboration on projects including the Millennium Dome, the British Museum Great Court Roof, Japanese Pavilion Expo 2000, the Weald and Downland Museum, the Savill Building, the Gardens by the Bay glasshouses and the Netherlands Maritime Museum. His work on these projects involved writing project specific software for geometry definition and structural analysis.
Sigrid Adriaenssens: Who were the most influential characters in your structural lineage and what did you learn from them?
Chris Williams: This is a very difficult question since it depends how far back one goes. I only went to one meeting with Ove Arup, there were four of us there to discuss the Mannheim Multihalle – Arup, Ronald Jenkins, Ted Happold and me. I was 22 or 23. So Arup did not have much direct influence on me, but he certainly influenced people of Ted Happold’s generation directly and then that influence came through Ted to me. Then there was Ian Liddell, who was the engineer in charge of the Mannheim project and without whom I don’t think Frei Otto’s concept could have been realized.
One mustn’t forget the people who developed the theory of geometry and structures, so many of them from Gauss to Timoshenko. When I was an undergraduate my thesis supervisor had done his PhD with Timoshenko, so I suppose there is some direct link. Mike Barnes developed the application of Alistair Day’s Dynamic Relaxation technique to surface structures and that was a key tool in the design and analysis of the British Museum roof.
SA: What are the innovations you brought to the design and analysis of the Mannheim Multihalle Gridshell and the Gridshell over the courtyard of the British Museum?
CW: I was very fortunate to work on these projects since in neither case were there precedents to tell us how to do it, and so we had to make it up as we went along. In the case of Mannheim, it was a question of adapting known techniques of analysis by hand, with a computer and by model testing to a new form of structure. In the case of the British Museum it was developing theory and software to generate the geometry entirely digitally. And in particular the concept of relaxing a grid over a predefined surface.
SA: What is your professional highlight and why?
CW: I suppose it is the excitement of working with creative people to produce something that none of us could have done on our own – engineers and architects from Arup, Buro Happold, Foster + Partners, Ney & Partners, Atelier One.
SA: What is your favorite structure and why? What did you wish you had done differently?
CW: I guess you mean project I have worked on. They are like children to me and it doesn’t seem right to have a favourite. There is always something you wish you had done differently, otherwise you haven’t learnt anything. Often things happen by chance. If you look at the image of one of the triangular pediments at the British Museum you will see that the roof geometry seems to sweep away from the edge to follow the shape of the pediment. This happened entirely by accident, the roof geometry was driven mainly by the size of the glass panels.
SA: What question are you never asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?
CW: I suppose the best question is one that you would have asked yourself, if you’d thought of it. But I suppose the question is always about simplicity, in design and theory. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote ‘…perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…’.
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