Architecture: Perfect use of line and length

Everyone is totally bowled over by the new high-tech stand at Lord's.
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The Independent Culture
AS THE Second Test Match between England and South Africa opened at Lord's yesterday, the ribbon was cut by the Duke of Edinburgh on cricket headquarters' latest architectural acquisition, a new grandstand by Nicholas Grimshaw.

Silvery white and luminous, this new pounds 12m grandstand seemingly floats above the green pitches, although it is in fact hunkered into the ground on three small load-bearing posts. A spinal cord of steel in one single piece, hidden within the structure, supports 6,000 tiered seats.

Without any obvious means of support, and uncluttered by the posts and columns of an earlier age, it provides the best view of the pitch at Lord's. That's why the MCC allowed a modest but quaint grandstand, built in the Edwardian pavilion style by Sir Herbert Baker, to be demolished and this crisp, white, cruise liner of a viewing platform to rise in its place. You couldn't see the boundaries from certain sections of Baker's grandstand, but nothing interrupts the sight lines from Grimshaw's. There isn't even any guttering on this building, which expresses itself along the 100 metres purely in horizontal lines. On wet days, hidden vacuum pumps suck rain from its elliptical roof and pump it underground.

The collection of buildings around the pitch at Lord's offers a potted history of the construction industry, from the Edwardian red brick cosiness of the MCC Pavilion, to Future Systems' Nat West Media Centre which will open in August. Just as Future Systems prefabricated their aerodynamic contoured module as a white, seamless shell in a boat yard in Falmouth, Grimshaw prefabricated 605 pre-cast concrete floor units. His architects were dispatched as quality controllers throughout every stage, to assemble a kit as precise as Lego with a seamless, fluid, silky finish that is good to touch. Mica mashed into the cement gives the grandstand a silvery burnish, very discreet but beautiful.

Nobody ever goes behind a stadium unless they're looking for the lavatories. But standing behind the Grimshaw building you can see what a technological breakthrough was made in the design in collaboration with engineers Ove Arup.

"Bridges are built like this but never a building - until now," says Richard Matthews, project manager at Ove Arup, as he explains the tension of assembling pre-cast modular pieces on such a gigantic scale. Any mistake in the calibrations would have been disastrous. There were tense moments as the pre-cast pieces were driven on site in convoys by night and then jacked into position along the entire span of 100 metres.

"When we de-jacked them slowly, and took all the props out at the end of construction, it hung there as firm as you like, the whole building across 100 metres and not a single seam out of place."

Only then did the MCC, who had been watching building progress over the 18 months, reveal how nervous they'd been about the project. "Imagine if any one of those 605 pieces had been out, by even just 5ml. The knock- on effect would have been tremendous," says Richard Matthews.

Everyone is delighted with the final result. The MCC's archaic rules about members wearing ties, and not allowing women into their hallowed precincts, may have cost them lottery funding for this project, but they can be proud of the innovative way in which they have kept contemporary architects' eyes on the ball. This dates from the makeover of the Mound Stand by Michael Hopkins between 1984 and 1991, to the futuristic media centre by Future Systems, and now Grimshaw's stand.

Behind all this far-sighted commissioning of the very best contemporary architecture, of course, is the pressing financial need to pack more punters into every game of a very limited season.

No one likes to admit it, but since major sporting events are now established as corporate entertaining venues, Lord's has had to increase seating capacity. The brilliant spin-off is a showcase for British architectural and engineering genius.