What to do with a pink elephant? - Business - News - The Independent

What to do with a pink elephant?

Fierce debate is raging over the Docklands print plant of the Financial Times, to be abandoned just seven years after it opened

SOME say it is a monumental failure, others that English Heritage should consider making it a listed building. The only thing everyone agrees is that the printing works of the Financial Times in London's Docklands is controversial. Far from dampening emotions, the announcement that it is to be closed - just seven years after it opened - has stirred up another storm.

At issue is the fate of the building. Suggestions, some of them tongue- in-cheek, range from installing a brewery to disassembling it, shipping the parts to the South Bank and then rebuilding the structure as an inexpensive alternative to Sir Richard Rogers' proposed glass roof. One critic has even floated the idea of turning it into a museum to the failure of modern architecture. Probably the most likely outcome will be conversion into an office block, with a new internal floor structure filling its cavernous central hall. Its predecessor, Bracken House in the City's Cannon Street, suffered a similar fate.

Seen from the northern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, the building - designed by Nicholas Grimshaw - is a featureless grey block. But once the viewer goes around the corner on to the A13, an eight-storey window, held in place by steel and aluminium spiders' legs, reveals the inner workings of the press room. By day, one can vaguely see giant rolls of newsprint on the floor beneath the blue machinery and silver catwalks. At night the interior is lit, allowing passers-by to see mile-long sheets of paper weaving their way through the two Goss web presses. It is said that it has been the cause of several road accidents on the A13, as drivers turned to stare, although the FT claimed that could be just folklore.

The entrance is at the back, facing acres of car park, in one of the oval, metalic towers that recall the funnels of East India Company steamships that used the nearby docks. Inside, it has a restaurant and swimming pool, although insurance problems prevented the the pool from being filled with water.

"It's a marvellous building and it's a great disappointment that we have to leave," said a spokesman for the FT. "We will be seeking potential buyers over the next week or two and will sell it to the highest bidder. But we are keen that the shell architecture be maintained." Whether the company can make such a condition stick remains to be seen. Whether it is desirable is another question.

East India Dock House has won nine design awards, including the Royal Fine Arts Commission's Building of the Year in 1989, which it shared with a courthouse in Truro. It has also collected accolades from the architectural establishment. It was once called a "glittering jewel box." Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, said at the weekend that it was the type of building that "echoed industrial civilisation" and linked it to Victorian traditions.

"Architectural masterpiece" often refers to the likes of Blenheim Palace and such stately piles as Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Devonshire. But Britain has another heritage, argues Lord Gowrie. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the nation is home to great factories and warehouses.

"They are the cathedrals of the world's industrial movement," he said. "Young architects like Grimshaw rejoice in that tradition."

But since the First World War, such buildings have increasingly been cheap, functional sheds made from bare concrete or galvanised sheet metal. Their cousins, office buildings, have tended to be featureless blocks. Supporters of the printing plant argue that the FT, by commissioning Mr Grimshaw to build it, was exercising its patronage in an attempt to turn back that tide, while looking to the future.

Despite finding inspiration in 19th century traditions, the building has had criticism piled on its doorstep by those who favour classic forms. Critics argue that it is an isolated monument, divorced from its surroundings.

"I look the other way when I drive past it," said Dr Brian Hanson, director of projects at The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture. "It stands there as an indictment of Docklands - with a big window to enable you to look out and see more of the same."

The failure of the building as a printing plant has nothing to do with its architectural merits and everything to do with economics. The FT built it on the assumption it could pick up contracts from other publishers that would keep its presses rolling around the clock. The recession put paid to those plans.

The company has now decided to contract out its UK printing to West Ferry Printers, a joint venture between the Telegraph and Express newspaper groups, in keeping with its practice elsewhere. The move will cost it £33m this year, but is expected to save £6m annually. Neither the asking price nor the cost of construction has been revealed.

The plant is not the only modern business building to be under threat from free-market forces. The Lloyd's of London headquarters is also in danger. If the 308-year-old insurance market closes at the end of this year, as some predict, it may not be long before the space-age building in Lime Street sports a "For Sale" sign, too.

Supporters say both the Lloyd's and FT buildings are significant examples of the high-tech school of architecture championed by Sir Richard Rogers, designer of Lloyd's, and Sir Norman Foster. Using modern building materials, primarily steel and glass, they attempt to combine form and function in a structure that will be, above all else, flexible, said Giles Worsley, the editor of Perspectives On Architecture. "In theory, they should be able to adapt easier than any other building. This will be a test of whether they can."

Against that is the experience of the Brynmawr rubber factory built in Wales in the 1950s. It has been listed for its eye-catching series of concrete domes. But despite its unique design, it has been vacant for the better part of a decade.

The Lloyd's building stands a better chance of finding a new use. Sir Richard designed it with an exo-skeleton that contains services like plumbing, air conditioning and wiring on the outside, so that the offices can be easily remodelled.

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