UK's new spy centre is modelled on No 1 Court

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The Independent Online
By Fran Abrams Westminster Correspondent

IT MAY be something of a back-handed compliment, but the architect in charge of the new GCHQ "spy" building admits his doughnut-shaped design may have been partially inspired by the new No 1 Court at Wimbledon, just a minute's walk from his home.

Illustrations of the Cheltenham project, available to the public in the local planning office, feature his plans alongside pictures of the Wimbledon court which is currently playing host to some of the world's top tennis players.

Peter Ullathorne, the project director and vice-president of the Gensler architecture practice which designed the GCHQ building, described the similarity as "a happy accident." His architect's model, pictured, cost pounds 100,000. "We used the Wimbledon court to prove to our clients that such a building was possible and to demonstrate the scale," he said.

The purpose of the two buildings could hardly be more different, although both are designed with relaxation in mind. Far from being entirely focused on the serious business of listening in to foreign regimes, the new pounds 300m spy centre at Benhall will have strong elements of an out-of-town shopping experience.

There are plans for supermarkets, banks and leisure facilities such as a health centre. A central courtyard will provide a place for hard-pressed boffins to relax at lunchtime by parasol-covered tables near a series of carefully planted ponds.

According to Cheltenham's planning committee the complex will have: "A pedestrian plaza between the main building entrance and a visitor centre, forming an attractive open view." The building, of metal and glass underpinned by Cotswold stone, will be surrounded by "radiating tree-planted avenues" of Lombardy poplar. Landscaping will include Hidcote lavender, hebes, potentilla and mahonia, all colourful shrubs much-loved by supermarket chains and major modern leisure developments.

Grahame Lewis, head of development services for Cheltenham Borough Council, said councillors who approved final details of the plans last week thought they were "a magnificent" piece of work.

"It's modern, it's different and it's a unique solution to what I would say is a unique organisation," he said. Because of the tight security surrounding the complex, it was important that people were not tempted to leave the site any more than was necessary.

"They want people to be comfortable at lunchtimes and rest times, and to provide infrastructure that will keep staff there, with shops and leisure facilities on the site. The whole attitude to going to work will be different. It's really going to be an exciting experience," Mr Lewis said.

The day-to-day running of the new spy centre will, however, present a sizable challenge because security demands require that outside companies cannot be brought in to run shops or other franchises. One solution would be to use ex-employees, who already have security clearance, to run the various outlets.

Despite the modern design concept and the open-plan offices within the circular building, the separate visitors' centre on the site will be designed with the need for secrecy in mind rather than in the spirit of openness.

Officials from other government departments who need to see GCHQ staff will meet them there rather than being taken into the operational areas where "super-computers" and other devices are working. New recruits being interviewed for jobs will also be taken to the visitors' centre.

There will also be a green element to the new complex. Just 1,800 car parking spaces are provided along with 200 cycle spaces, and original designs included a "park and ride" scheme.

The project is also unique because it is the first public-private partnership for the security services, with Tarmac, Group 4 and British Telecom making up the private consortium which will build it. Staff will move to the new building in 2004 or 2005.

While there is harmony over the plans, there is slight friction over the name. Known locally as "the doughnut," its architects prefer to call it "Fatboy" because it superseded a slimmer version.