Stop press, says the pink 'un

The FT is selling its state-of-the-art printing premises in Docklands. Can it ensure it falls into the right hands?
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The Independent Culture
The news that the purpose-built Financial Times printing press in London's Docklands is to be sold next spring after just seven years in the FT's hands came as something of a surprise last week. Of course, the newspaper and its proprietor, Pearson plc, have every right to optimise its costs; by shifting to a cheaper printing house, the "pink 'un'' will save between £5m and £6m a year. Stark economics aside, it does seem sad that such a special building should be abandoned so early in life, particularly when new custom-designed buildings have been growing as thin on the ground as tailor-made suits.

When the FT commissioned Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners to design its Docklands' printing press, there was a feeling abroad that here at last the Fleet Street diaspora was in line for a bright new identity. Grimshaw's building was designed to reveal the FT's presses to passers-by; the sight of great rolls of pink paper spinning through vast rollers has been one of London's most remarkable night-time sights. It is almost a shame that the building is located so far from the city centre, as its operations are as gripping as any son et lumire performance put on for tourists.

National newspapers abandoned Fleet Street and its environs in the Eighties, when it became possible, through the crushing of the old print unions and the introduction of new technology, to separate the editorial offices from printing presses. This happened at the same time as it seemed possible to cash in on old central London properties in the property boom of the Thatcher-Lawson economic bubble. Docklands was the new Jerusalem - or, so it seemed at the time - and out rushed papers and presses.

But when newspapers abandoned Fleet Street, they also ditched their grand old buildings. The marvellous, glossy black Daily Express building - a high point of Art Deco design in Britain - stands empty still in a street that has all but lost its once special and blustering character. Now, the same thing seems set to happen in Docklands.

The FT has proved to be a clever mistress, steeped in the art of lucrative divorce. When the paper abandoned its old purpose-designed building, Bracken House - designed by Sir Albert Richardson - mere picas from St Paul's, it moved its journalists into a brutal block at the south end of Blackfriar's Bridge and its printing presses into the award-winning building it had commissioned from Grimshaw, architect of the popular Waterloo International Terminal.

It had originally intended to remodel Bracken House for its own use, but when a firm of Japanese financiers offered the FT £143m, plus a further £16m in rent for the building (by now undergoing a handsome rebuild by Michael Hopkins and Partners), it was an offer the newspaper felt it could not refuse. So, taking the money and making its excuses, it left.

It is highly unlikely, however, that the FT will be able to pull off the same ruse twice (or, to be fair, enjoy the same bit of luck). The printing works in Docklands is a very fine building, but given its location is unlikely to attract much of a price. In fact, the two massive printing presses inside the crystalline building, together with ancillary equipment, cost about the same as the architecture. James Joll, finance director of Pearson, says that attempts have been made to encourage other publications to print at the Grimshaw press, but to little avail. Until recently the press printed the Observer as well as the FT, but when the Guardian bought the Observer, that profitable arrangement came to an end.

"We'll certainly make every effort to promote the building," says Mr Joll, "in the hope that it will fall into the right sort of hands. We would be upset if the integrity of the design was undermined. Yes, it is a shame that it has to be sold, but, to put it crudely, business is business and buildings, no matter how special, have to earn their keep. It may well be that another printer is able to make use of the building. Equally, it is a flexible design and could well be used for other purposes."

Such as? "I guess it could be a superstore," says Nicholas Grimshaw, "as it has a lot of parking space and is a big, essentially simple building. It would certainly be distinctive. Best of all it should be used as a printing press, but I can think of other uses. For example, it could offer a floor of restaurants and bars, a floor of ultra-modern apartments and a top floor of studios for artists, designers and architects. The location might not be the best one for this sort of mixed used, but it would be a simple thing to do.

"Of course, it could always be an art gallery. Now that it's the latest thing to convert redundant industrial buildings into museums and galleries, why not take an up-to-date industrial building for the purpose rather than some venerable antique such as Bankside Power Station?"

The FT printing works could easily be turned into a smart office, car showroom and workshop for a company such as BMW, which admires high-quality, engineering-based architecture (Grimshaw designed BMW's British headquarters at Bracknell, Berkshire), a headquarters for the Millennium Commission, an ecology centre from where to plan the greening of London ... it could be converted into any of these.

Whatever new role the FT printing works takes on - demolition is one option that no one will consider, given the sheer quality and workability of the building - it is a shame that an operation that has given so much pleasure to thousands of visitors and passers-by has to stop.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for the accountant.

JG

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