Architecture: Great glass ship makes headlines]: At last, a modern landmark to cheer up Plymouth, says Rowan Moore, impressed by the local daily paper's new building

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The Independent Culture
PLYMOUTH is a city that was blasted in the blitz, drably rebuilt and is tired of being confused with Portsmouth. It has a heroic past, but an indeterminate modern identity. If it were in France, Holland or Germany, it might find itself an energetic mayor who would commission a famous architect to create a local version of the Parisian grand projet. This might be a theatre, a railway station or a museum. But its main purpose would be as a conspicuous landmark, something to 'put the city on the map'.

This being Britain, it is not a civic building that is helping to raise Plymouth's profile, but the new offices and printworks of the local daily paper, the Western Morning News, and its sister, the Western Evening Herald. Like the old inhabitants of Fleet Street, the Western Morning News Company (founded in 1860 and now part of Northcliffe Newspapers) found it hard to reconcile modern printing methods with a city-centre site. So the location is not central, as a grand projet would be, but on an industrial park near the airport, lapped on one side by mud and sheds and on the other by virgin meadows that unfold towards the distantly visible Dartmoor.

The building might be on the edge of town, and it is not strictly a civic building, yet the newspaper plays a central role in the city's life and its actions are subjected to close public attention. Aware that this is the one building that symbolises a truly modern and dynamic Plymouth, the company intends to invite the public to join tours of the building.

The Western Morning News Company wanted to raise its standing and to impress a fresh image on those who associate Plymouth only with the image of a man in hose playing bowls. It also wanted a highly functional building. To these ends it hired Nick Grimshaw, the architect of the British Pavilion at the Seville Expo, the Channel tunnel terminal at Waterloo and, most pertinently, the Financial Times's printing works in Docklands, London.

Grimshaw has repaid the paper with a crystalline apparition, dug into a hillside at one end to heighten its dramatic impact so that it is literally rooted in its natural setting. Since the walls are largely of glass, you can see from the outside in as well as from the inside out.

While it is the building's structure that makes it remarkable, it has other properties, too. It uses, for example, the gradient of its site to advantage - traffic arrives in the core of the building in the middle of its three floors. As you approach the entrance along a carefully orchestrated route, you pass on one side a gnarled oak and a slope down to a wooded stream and, on the other - once past a section of corrugated steel wall - the whirring printing presses which, at pounds 10.5m, cost two thirds as much as the building itself.

This is no ordinary glass box. Its walls warp and curve in two directions at once. They follow the contour of the site and extend out towards the top in a concave sweep designed to eliminate reflections of the sky and increase the transparency. The glass forms a massive wall held in place by 666 gleaming stainless-steel brackets. These are in turn attached to an array of curved tapering masts by arms suspended from slender rods. The practical business of building a wall has been made into a drama of tension and compression, of the sturdy and the insubstantial.

The achievement of such functional drama has required energy and precision; glass is an unforgiving material and walls of it do not readily curve in two directions at once. If the brackets that hold the glass in place had been more that two millimetres out of true, the 2m-high sheets would not have fitted; the tolerances allowed in normal building construction are a lot more generous than this. The process involved exceptionally accurate measuring and alignment techniques to ensure that such vast areas of glass could be used safely, efficiently and reliably.

What is more, the building had to be raised quickly since the newspapers were in a hurry to move in. Although full operations do not begin until January, the new printing presses have already started rolling for test runs, while the work goes on around them.

The building's remarkable shape makes it a landmark. Just as the Louvre has its glass pyramid, so Derriford Business Park now has what appears from a distance to be a giant steel and glass ship, complete with bows, conning tower (which contains the boardroom) and, at the very top, a mast adapted from the yacht industry.

A ship may seem an obvious symbol for Plymouth, but Grimshaw's response, when asked about it, tends to be 'Ship? What ship?' He insists that the shape of the building is the natural outcome of his responses to the client's brief and to the site. This is a little hard to swallow, particularly as his early sketches for Western Morning News show something very ship-like. Nevertheless it is precisely the building's ship- like shape that makes it a landmark - and one particularly appropriate to Plymouth.

One of the the architect's biggest fans is Christopher Shepley, Plymouth's chief planning officer. Planners are often accused of inhibiting adventurous design, yet Mr Shepley finds the building 'magnificent', and only wishes that it had been more prominently sited.

Unlike other technologically inspired designs, the Western Morning News building is likely to be popular. Its form is a friendly, even a playful one. And it satisfies because it shows how an industrial process like printing can be part and parcel of a pleasant office building - and the whole thing of lasting architectural value.

Yet there are failings. The structural gymnastics are, at times, strained and the rationale for the complex shape is thin. In particular, the concave glass does not stop reflections of the sky as it was intended to. Equally contrary is the fact that visitors approaching the building are first met by the wall of corrugated steel, not glass - in effect, they encounter its backside first. And in the core of the building, the lively exterior can seem remote and irrelevant.

Nick Grimshaw practises a hi-tech approach to design that might more usefully be called performance architecture. The essence is the architect's ability to perform feats of technical skill, within stringent limits of time and money.

This approach has given Britain a number of inspiring buildings, yet it contains the danger of gratuitous mannerism, of launching technical fireworks that blind us to the realities of living with such structures. The Western Morning News building edges towards the brink of mannerism.

Nevertheless, the company has achieved something that no Fleet Street paper has managed since the Art Deco and Hollywood Egyptian palaces of the Thirties: a remarkable landmark. This year, the building's only British rival for inventiveness is another boat-like building: the Ark, a curious and controversial office block designed by Ralph Erskine for Ake Larson, a firm of Swedish property developers, alongside Hammersmith flyover in west London.

The Western Morning News could have opted for a conventional industrial shed - or something far worse, such as the News International compound in Wapping, London, a brutal concrete complex hidden away behind barbed wire and security gates. But they wanted more. What stays with you after a visit to this building is the image of an extraordinary structure built with a rare passion. It returns to the architecture of the newspaper business a lost spirit of adventure.

(Photograph omitted)

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