How Lord's put the fab into prefab

The home of cricket has led the way in inventive architecture. Now its new media centre is to be constructed entirely off-site.
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The Marylebone Cricket Club has become one of the most energetic and unlikely supporters of adventurous modern architecture. It seems remarkable, but red-faced chaps and chapesses, scoffing sandwiches, quaffing pints and Pimm's, applauding fours and sixes, announcing how well their little Johnny is doing this term at Rotters and dozing gently in the summer sun at Lord's cricket ground, seem perfectly at ease in their new surroundings.

The handsome and festive Mound Stand designed by Sir Michael Hopkins & Partners has played an extraordinary part in reconciling grand old British traditions with sophisticated new architecture and engineering. A second new stand, by Nicholas Grimshaw, architect of the much celebrated Waterloo International Terminal, has been commissioned. A handsome new indoor cricket school by David Nelson has been completed at one end of cricket's hallowed ground, and now Future Systems (with Ove Arup & Partners and Buro Happold as engineers), one of the country's most forward-looking teams of architects, has begun work on a truly sophisticated press box - the NatWest Media Centre - which promises to be one of the most elegant and original buildings in Britain.

What the MCC has learnt is that the best contemporary architects and engineers can design good-looking buildings that seem to defy the laws of gravity: held up with as few supports as necessary, they offer spectators and, from May 1998, journalists, unimpeded views of the pitch. They are also glamorous.

The new press centre, on which work has just begun, will appear to defy the laws of gravity, too. A semi-monocoque, aluminium structure, it will resemble a flying saucer that has just come in to land, barely caressing the aluminium-clad concrete supports that will bear its insubstantial weight in the gap between the Compton and Edrich stands. Given that it will house two floors, 250 journalists, a bar, a 50-seat restaurant that can be converted into a 150-seat lecture theatre, a camera gantry, two hospitality rooms, and lavatories, its net weight of 75 tons is, as a sports commentator might say, quite remarkable.

This is the building - if that is the right word - that Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levette of Future Systems have been longing to make for years. Entirely prefabricated off-site in a boat yard, the Lord's press centre will be more like a modern boat, car or aircraft, a true machine, built to close tolerances and from materials - notably aluminium - that are normally used for decorative rather than purely structural purposes in buildings. Its curvaceous profile is aerodynamic and will make it easy to clean; all surfaces will be smooth, free of protruding pipes and ducts. The design provides journalists with a vast, window through which to watch glare-free googlies and lbws. Journalists will feel like the crew of the Starship Enterprise: this is modern architecture, Jan, but not as we know it.

During the winter, the gateway, comprising stair and lift-shaft leading up to the capsule, will be built. Then there will be a pause while play at Lord's resumes for the summer. Next winter, the capsule, pre-assembled in 24 three-metre sections, will be lifted into place, secured and brought to life within just four weeks. No messy construction site, no disruption due to building works, the Lord's press centre will be a model of decorum.

Jan Kaplicky has long been trying to create a form of contemporary architecture that makes full use of modern engineering know-how, materials and technology. He feels that architects have long stood by while engineers have pioneered new materials and ways of making things. Why, he wonders, are most new houses so crude compared to the cars parked outside them? Why are we prepared to accept such archaic design?

Kaplicky sees the sort of design he is aiming for in both innovative engineering and natural design. In fact, he sees the two overlapping more closely than most people imagine. In a delightful new book, For Inspiration Only (Academy Editions, pounds 12.95), Kaplicky presents a hundred or so of the images that continued to inspire him as an architect. These are all to do with structure: the inside of a NASA Space Shuttle parachute, compared with the bone tissue of a human spine (they have much in common); a drinking water tank in Holland, compared with an egg yolk; an aluminium racing yacht, and a jellyfish.

If details of cars and boats, war planes and spaceships pop up frequently in this visual essay, it is because in them Kaplicky sees a potential or actual beauty of form, as well as structural possibilities or solutions that could and can be applied to the design of buildings. There will always be people, however, for whom such concerns appear to deny architecture its due weight. Where Kaplicky and the architects and engineers he works with seek economy of structure and elegant structure, there are plenty of people who find lightness of building unbearable, who feel happier with substantial structures of brick and stone.

This is why so many people are content with, and even dream of, conventional houses - the Joke Oak and Neo-Geo frippery that dominates the edges of our towns and cities: they want solidity and certainty even if the lightweight structures of the fuselages and hulls Kaplicky is so fascinated by are, in reality, stronger and more enduring. These considerations make it all the more remarkable that the MCC should be the patron of the first building of its type in Britain. If any building can convert the cricket- loving, Mock-Tudor Englishman and woman to the virtues of modern, engineering- led design, then this is it. My only regret is that we shall never know what Arlott and Johnners would have made of it. Piece of cake, perhaps

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