Structures for an exhibition

Nicholas Grimshaw, architect of the Eden Project, has given Frankfurt a spectacular exhibition hall, Messehalle 3. So, asks Jay Merrick, will British cities learn the lessons it teaches?
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The Independent Online

Can a shed be great architecture? It certainly can if the recently knighted Nicholas Grimshaw designs the world's biggest folded-roof exhibition hall for a European client. By rights, this story should be set just outside Birmingham or Manchester. Instead, it concerns Frankfurt, because Britain remains largely witless and mean-spirited in its approach to the architectural coverage of big floor areas, as if to say that shoals of mullet-coiffed salespersons and their clients not only deserve to suffer in deadly-dull steel tanks, but actually prefer it.

Interesting architecture cannot, of course, totally erase the implacable longueurs of exhibition life. Anybody who has spent two or three days on an exhibition stand, or toured a big exposition at length, knows that they are a fine and thorough torture; existential meltdown kicks in after an hour or two. That nagging, tuneless hum – is it piped music or the desperate moaning of the chalky entity that stares back at you from the polished chrome façade of the stand opposite? Architecture cannot quite stop this numbness. But it may – in a moment here, and a moment there – take the edge off it.

Grimshaw is an architect who does obvious in surprising ways. It was he who proved that the Dome and Dumber route was not the best way to make a Millennial architectural statement: not only is his super-lightweight, technically sophisticated Eden Project visually mind-blowing, but it also drew big attendances from day one. If the Dome gave British architecture and the unseemly grandiosity of the Government a bad name, the cluster of geodesic blisters in Cornwall proves that effective originality on a large scale can be both exciting and lucrative.

And it is because big is considered beautiful in Frankfurt that Grimshaw's team was given the chance to reinvent the exhibition hall. Messehalle 3 is a two-level volume whose upper floor is surmounted by a continuous run of compressed and splayed structural elements making up the "folded plate"; the symmetrical arrangement of four valleys and four peaks gives a clear span of 165 metres. It is clearly a remarkable achievement. Even so, it almost didn't happen.

The design of Messehalle 3, one of four big exhibition halls on the city-centre site (in Frankfurt, the mulleted are not personae non gratae to be banished to the outer limits), was the subject of an architectural competition at the beginning of last year. Grimshaw picked his favoured design team, yanked in an engineer from the design firm Arup and announced that he would enter the competition, provided a damn good idea popped up between lunch and teatime at their Conway Street offices, just off Fitzroy Square, west London. As soon as a folded-plate roof was suggested, avid sketching broke out. The blue touchpaper was lit, and the man from Arup scuttled back to his computer to discover if the solution was feasible. It was – and it was a winner in every sense.

The roof, and therefore the ambience of the upper floor of Messehalle 3, is not just an aesthetic treat, but a pin-sharp manifestation of effective function at low cost. With an internal volume of nearly 830,000 cubic metres and a structure embodying 10,000 tons of steel, the exhibition centre cost about £100m. It is an unremarkable amount for such a large coverage of floor-space – particularly as the project was completed by the Godzilla of Germany's main contractors, Hochtief, in just 18 months, despite the unusual complexity of a roof that was, in terms of both fabrication and erection, groundbreaking.

The Godzilla sobriquet is not tendered lightly. Hochtief is Germany's biggest construction conglomerate, with massive in-house architectural and engineering resources, and it is singularly underwhelmed by the reputations of internationally famous architects. If it disagrees with a design detail, out it goes in favour of its own. And so Grimshaw's success in dealing with the contractors – the completed Messehalle is little different in form from the original detailed model – is notable.

Grimshaw's project leaders, Neven Sidor and Ingrid Bille, managed in almost every instance to push through details that Hochtief at first threatened to bin. It seems they did better in that respect than Norman Foster, whose highly praised Commerzbank tower, about a mile away from the Messehalle complex, was rather more thoroughly Hochtief-ised.

Messehalle 3's practical virtues – sound-attenuation, ventilation, cooling, smoke-dispersal – were not known in advance. But extensive pre-erection testing of the roof's performance, sometimes using 1:1 scale mock-ups, showed that its form was perfectly efficient in those areas: form and function have coalesced almost seamlessly. "It was a project with a real atmosphere to it," said Ingrid Bille. "The contractors who did the roof got really excited about it. People took to it like it was their project. It wasn't like making a quick Deutschemark! It was 24 hours a day at the end."

The roof's internal details depended on such enthusiasms, though that is hardly surprising from a practice famous for the extraordinary amounts of time it spends on developing the smallest structural or operational facets of its buildings. There is a whiff of the genetic about the Grimshaw Detail. Left in a Petri dish, might it replicate and mutate to form a complete building?

At Frankfurt, the approach to lighting is particularly interesting. The sloping internal surfaces of the roof are fitted with lines of adjustable, four-part reflective discs, lit by spotlights fixed to hanging transverse "bridges" that also carry heating, ventilation and sprinkler systems. The shadowless neon dusk that one expects in such places has been replaced by a high ambient-light level, which accentuates rather than smudges detail.

Detail has also been tightly controlled on the exterior of Messehalle 3. Its span and sheer bulk meant there was a strong chance that the mass of the elevations might undo all the good work of the low-slung roof. And so the glazing on the entrance façade, facing the public agora at the heart of the Messehalle complex, has been de-linearised: the framing is quite fine, and the horizontal glazing bars curve upward towards the ends of the upper part of the façade. This creates a kind of sprungness that works well with the vast arc of the roof. Similar care has been taken with the side elevations, which are louvred, and the rear façade, which has been given a jazzily graphic treatment.

And yet, in Germany, the building is not considered unusual – but mandatory. Frankfurt, Hanover, Berlin and Leipzig compete furiously for exhibitions and continue to develop better and better complexes. Messehalle 3 is Frankfurt's response to the huge success of the Hanover Expo development and giant showpiece sheds such as the British architect Ian Ritchie's huge glass vault at Messe-Leipzig. Frankfurt's ambition is admirable, even if the city's proudly adopted architectural symbol – Helmut Jahn's imposing Messeturm skyscraper – is the pomo pits.

But it's marginally preferable to the NEC at Birmingham. Can Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh or Glasgow do any better? Of course, but only if their movers and shakers realise that good design can turn even the most mundane enclosures into money-makers that do not presage an eternal long day's journey into night for those that enter them.

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