words Kieran Long
When Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners was designing its new factory for Rolls-Royce, there were certain key aspects that even the architects were not allowed to know. Including the exact dimensions of the car that was to be produced there.
Not even the project architect was allowed to see the prototype. Only Nicholas Grimshaw saw the car, all but blindfolded before being taken to an obscure factory in Germany to see the full-scale plasticine version.
“We were driven to a little advance factory unit, and led through lots of empty spaces,” says Grimshaw. “Then we saw the plasticine mock-up, which looked more or less like what they are building now.” In fact, the only way the project team heard about changes to the design of the car was when an order came through from BMW – parent company of Rolls-Royce and financial client for the building – that dimensions of the building should be changed to accommodate a larger turning circle.
Grimshaw won the international competition for the building in August 2000, shortly after Rolls-Royce had been separated from Bentley and was bought by BMW. This was a formative time for the company, now entirely separate from the aerospace firm of the same name, and faced with finding a new home away from its historic factory in Crewe.
The site, near Chichester in West Sussex, had been earmarked for gravel extraction, but was chosen by Rolls-Royce for its proximity to the Goodwood estate, which has a race track for testing the cars, as well as facilities for landing private jets and proximity to major international airports. All these are essential for anyone who can afford a car that costs £252,000. The production line will produce just five cars a day, and each is almost completely assembled by hand to the client’s specification. The interior of this assembly line is curiously quiet, with workers clad in shirts and trousers, and barely a spot of oil to be found anywhere. Not unlike being in the car, with the silence inside belying the power of its 6.5l engine, which can accelerate faster than a Porsche Boxster.
Grimshaw says that the practice won the job by doing exactly what the client wanted. “BMW had a factory planning firm working on it already, and they knew exactly what machines were going to go where. They didn’t give a damn about what the building looked like. As they saw it, they just wanted an enclosure for a technical process. Some of the other competitors couldn’t resist trying to straighten it out and make it neater. I told my team that if Rolls-Royce wanted an L-shaped building, that’s what we should do.”
The facility is small compared with most car plants, and much smaller than many of Grimshaw’s previous industrial buildings. The distinctive L-shaped plan of the production line, requested by the client, generated the courtyard arrangement of the complex. The turn in the production line comes after the car has been all but completed, but before it has been filled with petrol and oil for final assembly in a semi-separate wing. Opposite this southern side of the building, Grimshaw has completed a three-sided courtyard with what the architect calls the pavilion building, a louvred block with facilities to take care of clients, a suite of offices and a boardroom.
The courtyard is conceived as an extension of the customer focus of Rolls-Royce’s new incarnation. It supposes that anyone investing this much money in a car is probably an enthusiast, so the glazed façades reveal the assembly process to the visitor. Indeed, you can follow the production line around two sides of the courtyard, and watch the cars go from empty shells to fully fitted and wrapped automobiles ready for shipment. The theatre of this moment reinforces the feeling of a boutique car plant. Rolls-Royce is confident enough in its methods to expose every aspect of construction to the gaze of the client.
Internally, though, the pavilion building is curiously unluxurious, and is probably the least satisfying part of the complex. In its detail it does not quite match the grandeur of its conception or the attention to detail that Rolls-Royce prides itself on. The paltry sliding doors at the main entrance are one example. Inside here is the generally disappointing reception area, a double-height space with a wide bridge forming a mezzanine. The space should be dramatic, lit from above by one of the building’s trademark rooflights, but the bulky bridge means that the reception desk feels a little mean. The corridor that leads to the customers’ suites is dark and disappointing – it could be from any spec office building. The car, too, has these inconsistencies. The sheer luxury of the vehicle encourages you to look at it in detail, with tactile, handmade veneer panels throughout, hand-sewn leather seats, and beautiful cast-steel fittings. However, the clips that hold the sun visor together are made of cheap plastic. This is irritating in a car, but the building’s problems are more forgivable. The effect of the factory is more in the ensemble than from the specific detail of the building, although there are moments of satisfying material quality.
If the pavilion area is underwhelming, the same cannot be said for the production areas. There is something thrilling about watching the cars slowly making their way down the production line, supported by a steel structure that is placed as close as possible to the glass wall facing the courtyard. Mezzanine walkways give the visitor an eyrie from which to watch the process from within the building. The production line is serviced from the huge storage areas behind it. Inside, a corridor of space sits between the two, lit from above by the skylights. These glazed openings sit above the tree-like columns, which are at 20m intervals. These large columns hold the main structure, and the façade is supported by secondary I-section columns which are left exposed.
The range of façade finishes, while hardly radical, is broadly logical, with clear definition between more office-like façades for the pavilion building, and larger, wing-like vertical louvres attenuating the sunlight streaming in to the assembly building. All of the west-facing façades have some element of Western Red Cedar timber cladding, which glows a fiery red during the spectacular sunsets in this part of the world. Grimshaw says that the timber was intended to “soften” the glass building, but if anything it makes it sharper, forming highly tectonic elements that are unafraid of expressing their lightness and material quality.
Grimshaw’s work has included many industrial buildings built in phases. His huge facility for polymer manufacturer Igus in Cologne, Germany, has been expanding for more than ten years, and is about to double in size again. Similarly, the seemingly hermetic cloister layout of Rolls-Royce is designed to be extended to the north and west. The timber cladding elements will simply be unclipped and reused after this extension.
The building has pretty decent sustainability credentials, gaining a “very good” Breeam (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) rating on completion, and includes one of the largest expanses of sedum roof in the country. In all, this building has to be infinitely preferable for the site than the gravel extraction plant that was previously planned.
A restaurant sits as the bridge link between the production facilities and the pavilion building, sitting on raked columns and looking back across the courtyard to the final assembly building with its fully glazed façade and curving roof. It is looking across this space, especially at night, that the building’s most obvious precedent comes to mind – Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, completed in 1956. Although the Saarinens’ complex is much larger than Grimshaw’s, it has a layout that is echoed here. General Motors occupies a 90ha site, and consists of a series of unconnected buildings arranged around a large rectangular pool of water. The blocks themselves are strongly horizontal with filigree glazing, behind which stand a series of sculptural reception desks and staircases. The low profile of the buildings was generated from the architect’s desire to blend the buildings in with the landscape. Grimshaw’s buildings sit almost hidden in their excavated site, with the slightly dipping roofs that attempt to continue the line of man-made berms, and make sure the view from the higher-altitude South Downs is unobtrusive.
Grimshaw says that the attitude to planning in this country makes it more difficult to make monuments out of industrial buildings. “In Germany, industry is more king than it is here,” he says. “They are much more tolerant there, as they are in the US and Japan. If you want to build a factory there you are very much encouraged. Our Igus factory stands gleaming in the countryside; there is not any attempt to mask it.”
Previous industrial buildings of Grimshaw’s have also revealed their internal workings to the outside world, most notably his print works for the Financial Times in Docklands, East London, completed in 1988. However, Rolls-Royce is a much less aggressive building in expressing the technology of the construction, and in its attitude to the landscape. Whereas the FT building had its supporting structure expressed externally, here the exterior is sheer expanses of glass, with timber louvres tempering solar gain and softening the impact of the glass and steel structure.
Also, although Grimshaw’s building may look here like a replay of the classic 1950s American corporate complex, the scale is much smaller, and the courtyard more domestic than those modernist monuments. Grimshaw’s own analogy is with an English country house, which is a very good evocation of the experience of being at the plant. Obviously, half a dozen Rollers parked outside helps with the building’s aristocratic pretensions.
architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners
partner in charge David Harriss
project architect Paul McGill
structural engineer WSP South / BMW Group
services engineer Buro Happold
quantity surveyor Davis Langdon Everest
main contractor and project manager BMW Group (Construction Management)
civil engineer WSP Development
façade consultants Arup