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.

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