Architecture: Building the future in a boatyard

The Nat West Media Centre at Lord's cricket ground has been assembled out of aluminium modules cast in the Pendennis boatyard at Falmouth.
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The Independent Culture
When the architect Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems predicts that, in the next century, builders will wear deck shoes rather than gumboots and a hard hat, he is not talking about global warming. He is highlighting a trend to pre-fabricate complicated new building shapes in boatyards.

Organic architecture looks more like pods and shells than the way children draw houses - boxes supporting a pitched roof. Like shells, they have to be load-bearing.

The buzz-word with adventurous architects is monocoque, which has previously been applied to aircraft fuselages, car bodies or ships' hulls in which nearly all structural loads are carried by the skin.

Not since the Wonderbra have so many curves relied upon hidden support. If the trend continues, the props of the construction industry - reinforced steel joists, pillars, posts and columns - will hit the skip, and go the way of whalebone corsets.

"Like an egg" is how Jan Kaplicky describes Future System's oval eye of the NatWest Media Centre that appears to hover over Lords cricket ground. But nowhere near as fragile.

Kaplicky is so convinced that aluminium will be the material of the future that he took a stand at last year's Interbuild to make the point. It is eco-chic too, he believes, and Greenpeace is not challenging him.

"It uses night-rate electricity when it's made, can be recycled in a second smelting and has three times the shelf life of steel because it doesn't rust underneath paint the way that your car does. Half the weight of steel means that it uses less raw materials."

He calls the Media Centre a semi-monocoque building because ribs support the aluminium sheets lined with fireproof slabs of a different density to protect the building for up to an hour.

Fireproofing aluminium was a first for the boatyard and for the structural engineers Ove Arup who devised it. The whole building is moulded in 26 sections in Rotterdam and Falmouth and assembled on site with watertight welding that makes the building seamless. The longest of the 26 pieces is almost 20 metres.

Each of the moulded segments is no wider than three meters - the maximum width for truck transport without police escorts. Future Systems wanted to float the Media Centre belly-up in bits, like a log flume, out of the Pendennis boatyard at Falmouth and berth it at the Thames docks, but it would still have needed road transport.

For such a big building it made little impact on the hallowed grounds of Lords, far less than bricks and mortar dug into foundations or cantilevered concrete cast on site. It appears to hover on top of two concrete stilts that will carry the 220 cricket commentators in lifts into the womb-like curvaceous interior.

The entire facade is non-reflective glass, 40 metres of it, so underfloor cooling is critical to cut the greenhouse effect. Carpeting wall to wall when there are no walls, as such, is tricky: where do you stop? The architects talk about the blue carpet they ran half way up the shell sides as the building's "blue suede shoes" - which says something about their relaxed attitude to furnishing it.

They are most proud of the elevated, unobstructed view of the pitch from the Media Centre which is, after all, its function and the reason for its form, "just like a camera lens reflecting the activity within".

The site chosen by a cricket commentator for the viewing platform for the world's media faces due west, directly into the sun. Jan Kaplicky is matter-of-fact about constraints:

"A pilot flying a plane to India and facing into the sun can't just turn around and change the route to New York. Pilots stick up newspapers in the cockpit of the big jumbos at certain times to cut the glare."

A silver filter in the glass stops players, all wearing white, from dazzling spectators and the glass is angled within the aluminium pod to slope inwards and cut the glare.

If monocoque architecture isn't to go off half-cock, it needs the technology of the aircraft industry and the shipyards. The skill is in combining the two, which is why Jan Kaplicky has done ground-breaking work.

Now the Catalan architect Enric Miralles wants to get the Scottish Parliament built in a Scottish boatyard using traditional timber technology to shape the upturned hull that forms the roof of the debating chamber.

Only rowing boats are made in timber, which describes his beached boat form. Sailing boats are mostly aluminium or glass-reinforced plastic, though carbon fibre is the preferred material for an America's Cup contender. That old adage that a ship can carry a boat but a boat can't carry a ship explains why shipyards aren't involved in the building boom. Shipyards are all about steel and there is no way that you can bend steel so easily.

Even so, shipyards have lessons for the construction industry. Peter Quartermaine, the author of Building on the Sea, points out that any overweight building is wasteful to construct but still functions. In a ship, surplus steel means a daily penalty in operating costs. "Most ships weigh only one third of a building of comparable size."

The quest for new ways of making things monocoque does not stop at buildings. The architect and Professor of Furniture at the Royal College of Art, Ron Arad, uses the concept in aluminium furniture made in Britain in an aircraft factory.

The TomVac aluminium chair, which is a bit like a deflated silver inner- tube pierced with cocktail-stick legs, is vacuum moulded, the the same technique used to create aeroplane parts, at Superform in Worcester. The alternative was to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds to make a pressed tool that would produce a chair every two seconds.

Ron Arad, an inventive designer with a low boredom threshold, finds that kind of mass production too much and it would have cost far more. For the 1998 Milan furniture fair he used Superform's cavity forming process to heat aluminium to 500 C and then inflated it with air pressure through steel stencils. Vases and tables blew up in size as if on steroids.

Harnessing cutting-edge technology is what makes British designers world famous. Future Systems have designed the ultimate pre-fab by messing about with boat designs - and given us more to celebrate at Lords than the cricket.