The Taj Mahal of the North Circular

Britain's hi-tech pavilion was the star of the 1992 Seville Expo. It's about to rise again: as an Asian Disneyland in suburbia, if Sharad Patel has his way. Peter Popham reports
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Nicholas Grimshaw's British Pavilion from the Seville Expo of 1992 is to rise from the dead. Packed into containers, it has been sitting beside a rubbish dump by London's North Circular Road for so long that everyone had forgotten about it. But its new owner, the film producer Sharad Patel, has declared his intentions. Grimshaw's gleaming steel box, as big as Westminster Abbey, sheathed in a wall of falling water and crowned with squiggly rooftop sails, is to be reincarnated as the heart of the Asian Centre, a new leisure complex.

It was always hoped that the pavilion, which cost pounds 30m to build and fit out, would find another use, as Crystal Palace did after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Numerous roles were suggested. For sale at pounds 2m to pounds 3m, it was going to be a motor showroom, or part of London Zoo, or a Channel tunnel rail terminal. While other potential buyers had faded away, Sharad Patel remained.

When his scheme clears planning and other hurdles, the pavilion will be removed from containers and bolted together to be the keynote building in a development that Patel intends to be "the first centre of its kind in the world" - home to south Asian food, festivals, films and shopping, but also a place to welcome non-Asians; where, as he puts it, "all walks of life can enjoy Indian hospitality."

Grimshaw's building stood out even in Seville, where it was surrounded by other structures clamouring for attention. On the North Circular, it should be dazzlingly conspicuous. This is one of London's rawest edges, the zone that architecture forgot. In 1924, at the time of Wembley's very own exposition, which resulted in the Palace of Industry and the Palace of Arts as well as Wembley Stadium, England's future was being forged here: modestly futuristic Tube stations, bombastic factories and ribbons of semi-detached villas gazing out on one of the nation's first multi- lane highways.

A lot has changed in 70 years. This strip is mecca and slum - mecca for shoppers at Brent Cross and Ikea and shops such as World of Leather and Kingdom of Leather and Tile City that dot the road's fringes, and a slum of neglected utilitarian sweatshops where the grip that British planners hold elsewhere has been relaxed so comprehensively that it is more a suburb of Istanbul or Bangkok. The difference is that the vulgarity and flamboyance that in Asian cities help to make up for lack of architectural taste are missing here. For the most part, what we get are dismal low- rent sheds.

Sharad Patel and his Asian Centre are about to change all that. Patel was born in Kenya, of immigrants from India, and he made his fortune by creating a fleet of mobile cinemas that criss-crossed the backroads of Kenya, bringing films to the villages. Soon, he was making films as well as showing them. His first film as director and producer was The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. Other credits as producer include Bachelor Party (Tom Hanks's first starring role) and the recent hit Jungle Book.

"It is my dream," he says of the Asian Centre, but it is a dream with roots in demographic reality. This quadrant of London is home, Patel claims, to 350,000 people of Indian or Pakistani origin, living between Finchley, Ealing and Wembley, all of whom would be within 15 minutes' drive of the new centre. The concept is to givethem, and the millions of non-Indian Londoners who regularly eat Indian food, multiple reasons for paying a visit.

In the scheme by the architects Chapman Taylor, the pavilion crowns a grassed artificial hill (containing the centre's car park) high above the North Circular. Shining with light and streaming with cascades of water, it will be the focus and central motif of a complex incorporating seven cinemas, a hotel tower, a television studio,restaurants, shops and at least one enormous wedding hall.

Patel's idea is to provide at one stroke those elements of subcontinental life so wretchedly missing from London: good, cheap Indian restaurants; clubs where housewives can go for an evening of cards; permanently blue skies and balmy temperatures. Indians love enormous wedding parties - having 1,000 guests is considered miserly. The only places in London accommodating such parties are municipal halls, which have waiting lists of a year and lack proper catering. At the Asian Centre, such parties will be thrown with the ostentation they demand. To give them the right ambience (and help to blot out surrounding scenery), Chapman Taylor propose a tree-lined canal leading up to the pavilion, evoking the Taj Mahal and providing a stunning backdrop for photographs.

The entrance will be through a tropical garden, replete with real palm trees and leaping monkeys, while the floor underneath will be given over to a "retail theme street" closely modelled on the one at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, with Roman statuary, pediments with everything and an artificial blue sky speckled with drifting clouds. To ensure that everything is authentically fake, Patel sent his architects to Las Vegas. Other interior spaces will be designed and built by the Indian craftsmen responsible for the Jungle Book sets.

One casualty of the pavilion's rehabilitation will be its high-tech austerity. In 1992, Grimshaw, designer of Eurostar's Waterloo terminal and much else, said his pavilion would be "concerned with serious design issues, not Disney razzmatazz". In its new incarnation, Disney razzmatazz will be in the driving seat. None the less, Grimshaw, who has seen the latest model, pronounces the scheme "potentially quite promising, so long as they retain the water wall and pay proper attention to detail. Most pavilions at Seville were simply thrown away. If so, we would be happy to see it re-used."

One large stumbling block remains in Sharad Patel's way. His putative building site is occupied by 350,000 tons of compacted rubbish, and as the site is still a municipal tip used by five different boroughs, it is increasing every day. Mr Patel fervently hopes he will be able to persuade the boroughs to take their rubbish elsewhere so he can get down to work. If he succeeds, the provisional completion date for the centre, budgeted at pounds 60m to pounds 65m, is August 1999.

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