Open the glass box

Nicholas Grimshaw's acclaimed glass and steel British pavilion for Expo 92 in Seville has ended up in 101 containers by a ring road in Neasden. Soon it is to be unpacked and modified for an Asian centre
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The Independent Culture
From the North Circular, at its most entangled flyover, near Neasden, you can see 101 containers on the site of a rubbish processing plant. They house Britain's best uncompromised architectural monument this century, Nick Grimshaw's glass and steel pavilion built for Expo 92 in Seville where six million visitors stepped behind the waterfall that ran continuously, and ingeniously, down its glass facade. That audacious piece of architecture - and the artistry of the fountain's creator, Bill Pye - made the British stand the coolest place to be in the heat of that Spanish summer of '92. Vented at each side with taut sailcloth, it looked as though this pavilion lightly skimmed the marmalade coloured earth of Seville; its jagged roof-line supported solar panels to boost the pumps that recycled the fountain water. The pavilion said everything about British ingenuity and engineering. There was poetry in its lightness, and brilliance in its construction, and forward thinking in its eco-conscious air conditioning. Yet it was pulled down after six months, a fate planned for the Millennium Dome until Tony Blair's rescue package gave it the go-ahead on condition that the dome was built to last.

For five years, Grimshaw's pavilion has been packed flat, its parts numbered and listed, and stored in containers like the fruits of an archaeological dig, while its new owner, Sharad Patel, got a project called the Asia Centre off the ground. Mr Patel answered an ad in the Financial Times as Expo ended and bought the building for pounds 750,000 from the DTI because he liked it. He sees the Grimshaw building as the jewel in the crown on his 8.5 acre site which he hopes will house multiple cinemas, studios for his company, AsianSky TV, restaurants, shops, landscaped gardens, hotels and leisure centres and wedding halls, planned by his architects, Chapman Taylor.

Sometimes Mr Patel must wish he had not responded to that ad. AsianSky TV has spent at least pounds 7m on the project so far and it is still not off the ground. First he had to get the building off the Seville site within six months of the exhibition closing. Its pack-flat construction needed structural engineers to deconstruct it.

Two container ships had to be hired to take it to Southend in Essex, from which it was brought by lorry to the site, where the containers had to be welded to stop thieves - two were broken into and cable parts were stolen, but as AsianSky TV, the owner, points out, new cabling would have to be used anyway. Then there was to be road-widening work around the junction with the M1 and compulsory purchase orders made it impossible for the company to get a leaseholder off the site for four years after the purchase in 1992. The company is now ready to break ground but planning permission is still in the balance, though the original proposals for the retail operation have been scaled down. Detailed submissions have been sent to the Millennium Commission in the hope of funding.

Mr Patel bought a building that looked like a finished one but to comply with building regulations, he has had to spend a lot more. Serious technical changes are needed as it moves from the plains of Spain to rainy Britain. The glass facade and the fountain will stay, as will the sailcloth gussets on both sides of the building, but they have no thermal qualities. Behind the billowing sails there has to be either lightweight metal panels or another glass wall. Building regulations on energy-saving have tightened up in the intervening years. Now the building has to be double-glazed, which doubles the weight of the structure. Chapman Taylor plans to double- glaze along the castellated beams that run vertically throughout the interior which leaves a gap of one-and-half metres like a walkway.

"I am a little tired," Mr Patel admits. "So it is fortunate that I am a film-maker who can visualise things - and make them happen. I am very near to achieving what I want, a beautiful centre for the community that will become a tourist attraction, like the Hindu temple nearby, where people participate rather feel alienated."

A Gujarati who splits his time between Kenya and London, Sharad Patel's credits include The Rise and Fall of General Idi Amin, Jungle Book One, Jungle Book Two and The Adventures of Pinocchio. Now he aims to improve Asian TV as well as to build this agreeable meeting point for affluent Asians to mix with people from many other different communities in what he calls the host country.

So how does Nicholas Grimshaw feel about his vision of Expo ending up on the hard shoulder of the North Circular?

"Obviously we are disappointed we weren't commissioned to design the Asian Centre scheme," says Christopher Nash, director of the project team at Expo and a director of Grimshaw and Partners. At Chapman Taylor, Henry Herzberg, senior partner, is reverential. "It is one of the great buildings of our time, a superb piece of modern architecture," he says. "All architects worth their salt quite rightly worship it. But resolving the technicalities while conserving the feel of the building is tricky. It's like dealing with a listed building. From the beginning we have spoken to the Royal Fine Arts Commission about it. And Nick Grimshaw. For as long as he is happy, we will continue to talk things through with him."

Grimshaw agreed to the building evolving as an all-glass box. Taylor Chapman has turned the entire back wall - metal at Expo - into glass so drivers on the North Circular can see into the box, at night vibrant with light and activity, by day a curiosity.

"Mr Grimshaw visited the site twice," Sharad Patel explains. "He is excited about it. At least we were able to show him that it was not going to turn into a curry house."

Rather, it is to be a gallery/ museum with hands-on entertainment to make virtual reality trips inside famous buildings and monuments such as the White House or the Pyramids, and an exhibition on the history of motor car.

Whatever happens, the curators have to keep the interior the way that Nick Grimshaw designed it. It will not be the first time that cars have been parked in the building. A Range Rover at Expo stood inside, along with Royal Doulton tea-sets and M&S underwear after the sponsors, who had put up millions towards the building of the pavilion, not unreasonably fought to use it as a show-case for their products. Nobody liked the finished results. David Sieff of Marks & Spencer recalls the experience. "It simply did not deliver what we were seeking and we made our views very clear to the the DTI at the time," he says.

There is a lesson to be learnt from this for Millennium Central, which is organising the contents of Richard Rogers's Millennium Dome dome through sponsorship. "We simply got on with the building independently, without any idea of the theme and content, which was a mistake as it turned out," Christopher Nash from Grimshaw and Partners recalls. "It was an easy building within which to operate but the task was made difficult by the ever increasing need to get sponsorship."

Before Expo opened, Sir Terence Conran tried to make the DTI keep the building empty and put in paintings and sculpture. When it closed he tried to persuade the DTI to move it to Britain and put it on the one-acre site of Spice Quay at Butler's Wharf on the Thames, where it would have been a perfect fit and where he would have made it a centre of innovation alongside the Design Museum. He failed.

Let us hope that at the proposed Asia Centre it will not become a white elephantn