BFI: A modern marvel with countless features

The BFI’s sleek new film store proves that concrete can be both practical and strikingly beautiful, says Jay Merrick

Can a matrix of ice-cold concrete bunkers with 1.2-ton steel blast-doors be beautiful? At the British Film Institute's new Master Film Store near Gaydon in Warwickshire, the answer is yes. This engrossing architecture manages to evoke not only Donald Judd's gnomic concrete sculptures at Marfa in Texas, but ushers us into the pages of W G Sebald's novel Rings of Saturn, and his descriptions of the surreal bomb-testing landscape of Orford Ness in Suffolk.

The £12m Master Film Store and its 27km of racking, is part of a £22m scheme, funded by the DCMS and designed by Cullinan Architects, to reorganise the BFI and regional film archives. The state-of-the art building is a textbook demonstration of function dictating form, but in spite of this the building conveys a certain stripped-down elegance, using little more than precisely joined concrete panels and corrugated stainless steel cladding. The palette of high sheen, matt greyness and crisp edges is graphically precise – and yet the architecture has a quality that's as mysterious as its setting.

This is a fascinating achievement by Edward Cullinan, one of British architecture's most revered figures, and his project leaders, Robin Nicholson and David Leggett. Despite the practice's great experience and stream of gongs for innovative environmental design they admit to not having the faintest idea how to design a secure film store: "Yeah, it was research, research, research," says Leggett. "It's true, we didn't know anything. But the learning process was really amazing."

The fundamental fact to appreciate was the potential force of a fire involving cellulose nitrate film stock – something impressed upon them by watching a 1946 film called Test 11, made in America, showing the experimental burning of a ton of nitrate film stock in a sturdy 15-metre high concrete tower. Within seconds, the tower's steel blast lid was wrenched open by the extreme gas pressures; and astonishingly fierce gouts of flame shot from the tower's side-vents.

It is possible to express the Master Film Store's design concept in a single line: concrete store room segment in the middle, with rows of blast-doors forming two facades; offices and services along the other two sides; and green roofs carrying mats of sedum, 21 species of wild flowers, and the refrigeration system that gives the structure an Excellent energy-use rating.

The physical contrast between the segments is very satisfying. The corrugated stainless steel wrapped around the offices and services elements gleams like a 1950s Airstream trailer, and rounded corner sections add to the streamlined effect. Where heavier steel structural elements appear – holding up the angled office roof, for example – they are expressed as simply as possible.

The need to release explosive fire and gases away from the building gave Cullinan and Leggett the chance to prove that functionality can produce a kind of sculptural beauty. Each of the 30 steel outer blast-doors, framed by projecting concrete edges, rests on a pair of hinges the size of rolling pins. In the very unlikely event of a fire in one of the nitrate stores, a combined sheer-bolt and solder-link quickly give way and the 10ft square steel door clangs down, releasing the firestorm and clouds of nitrous oxide and cyanide. The way the concrete has been modelled, if not quite worthy of Donald Judd, contributes to making this the most interesting modern archive architecture since the Wellcome Trust Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex, designed by Stanton Williams, opened in 2000.

It is a different kind of life that is being preserved for posterity at Gaydon. A nitrate and acetate reserve chemically etched with the visions of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, and the heroically resourceful and creative directors of the GPO film unit who produced low-budget pre-war classics such as Night Mail and Addressing the Nation. In Gaydon, a refined architectural bunker has given Britain a marvellous new cultural resource.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition