Universal Space

Chris Wilkinson

Architects and astronauts share a preoccupation with the exploration of space, but for architects it is limited to the design of contained space. To envisage and design spaces is a fundamental part of our job and convention has made it easy for us by limiting the size and shape of rooms to what people can readily understand. Most buildings are made up of essentially rectangular spaces with modest headroom related to human proportions. In Japan this was regularized by a traditional formula for domestic spaces, which was derived from the size of the tatami mat and the way in which it was laid on the floor in various layout patterns. In post-war Britain space standards for housing were clearly defined in the Parker Morris Standards. In both instances, innovation was discouraged and difficult to achieve. Yet throughout history there has been recognition of a need for spaces which are more exciting and uplifting.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all constructed spaces of grand proportions which were designed to inspire the people who used them. These were spaces for the gods and had to be beyond domestic human scale. A millennium later the great Gothic cathedrals provided the kind of awe-inspiring spaces that would make us feel humble in the sight of God. Since that time, the generators of grand spaces have changed from religion to industry, transportation, leisure and more recently retail. The need for huge enclosed spaces has been rapidly increasing as the technology for providing them becomes more accessible.

The term 'universal space' was first proposed by Mies van der Rohe to describe a kind of long-span single-volume flexible enclosure. In order to explain the concept, he used an interior photograph of the Glenn Martin Aircraft Assembly Building, designed by Albert Kahn in 1937, as a backdrop for a montage onto which he superimposed a number of free standing planes to represent walls and ceilings that could be moved to suit changing requirements. It's a wonderfully descriptive image with which to identify the kind of space that can house a wide variety of uses, ranging from industrial to transport, sports and leisure activities. Moreover, the big single-volume enclosure is the ultimate flexible space, which can be modelled or adapted to suit almost any user requirement.

Richard Buckminster Fuller was also preoccupied with this concept, which fitted in well with his philosophy for achieving 'more with less'. With the development of the innovative geodesic dome structures, he succeeded in enclosing large-volume column-free spaces with minimum weight and materials. He took this idea even further with a project in the 1950s for a tensegrity dome 2 miles in diameter over Manhattan and although nothing of this size has yet been constructed, it is now technically possible. More recently, Richard Rogers's Millennium Dome at Greenwich goes some way to exploring the potential for this kind of large roof enclosure with its huge fabric roof covering an area of approximately 80,000m2.

My own interest in the concept of universal space was born in the mid 1970s when I was working for Foster Associates on the design of industrial buildings, which we called 'sheds', for clients who required big, flexible and extendable spaces. It became clear that for these clients, who were mostly involved in the assembly of electronic components, the kind of space required for the production areas was much the same as for the offices. The need was for a flexible space with wide column spacing, which could be 'tuned' to suit their specific requirements

Whilst working on the design for the huge IBM London Distribution Centre at Greenford in 1974, I started to research its roots in earlier industrial architecture and I soon found parallels with transportation, exhibition and leisure buildings which all generated the same requirement for long-span large-volume spaces. The research was eventually published as Supersheds (Butterworth Architecture, 1991).

The term supersheds can be applied to the buildings which enclose universal space and can be defined as 'buildings enclosing a large single volume of space with relatively long spans and without major subdivision'. The introduction starts 'There is a kind of architecture which is not formal, decorated or mannered, but which derives its aesthetic from a clear expression of its purpose and component parts, where the demands of function and economy have led to simplicity of form and construction, but where the basic requirements of enclosure and structure are extended by design to create buildings of quality.'

It is a category of building which has largely been excluded from the mainstream of architectural classification and left to the province of engineering. It is here, however, that the skills of architecture and engineering converge. The development of these buildings has closely followed technological progress and began in the early nineteenth century with the advent of the railways and the Great Exhibitions, which generated the need for long-span enclosures at a time when the technology of cast-iron structures was sufficiently advanced to be able to provide them.

In Britain the 1850s saw the construction of two fine buildings which exemplified the spirit of the new age of architectural engineering: the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton and Paddington Station by IK Brunel. Both of lightweight construction, these vast universal spaces were functional, economical and expressed simplicity of form and clarity of structure.

Further technological progress in the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the development of vaulted structures that could span ever larger spaces. Barlow and Ordish's train shed at St Pancras Station in 1868 spans 74m, while Cottancin and Dutert produced the first significant three-pinned arch structure for the Galerie des Machines at the Paris Exhibition in 1889 with the incredible span of 114m. The development of airships at the turn of the twentieth century prompted the next major technical advances.

Huge-volume enclosures were required to house the airships and this sparked off the search for new lightweight materials and structures. Also, for the first time, aerodynamics became an important factor. In order to reduce turbulence for docking and launching airships, streamlined hangar designs were developed in wind tunnels, producing such innovative designs as the Sunnyvale Naval Airbase in California.

Later developments, related to aeroplane technology and the emergence in 1970 of the Jumbo Jet with its 60m wingspan, created the need for a new generation of long-span large-volume buildings. The largest of them was the Boeing Assembly Plant at Everett, near Seattle, which is the world's largest building by volumetric capacity with five bays 488 x 35m high and clear spans of 35m. Visitors enter this huge building through a below-ground tunnel and emerge from a lift in one of the central cores to experience an awe-inspiring space, where it is possible to assemble twelve Jumbo Jets at one time and still have room to manoeuvre.

The requirements of industry have constantly changed with the development of new manufacturing techniques and the buildings which house the processes have evolved to meet these requirements. The most significant development this century has been the introduction of the production line assembly, which originated primarily in the United States for the automobile industry and created the brief for the single-storey, rooflit, wide-span industrial shed that we know so well. Considerable progress was made in the design of this form of industrial shed by Albert Kahn who, in his lifetime, built more than 2,000 factories characterized by strong functional forms with clear expression of purpose, structure and materials. In Europe there are relatively few examples of good industrial architecture from that time, although the Bauhaus did make a considerable impact and leading figures such as Behrens, Gropius, Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe all worked on the design of industrial buildings. At the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne in 1914 the Machine Hall was designed as a 'model factory' and its pitched portal frame has almost become an industry standard.

Another milestone for change was derived from the World War II blackout armament factories in the United States, where the need for air conditioning generated a constraint on the overall building volume for reasons of economy. This led to the flat-roofed, rectangular-grid 'cool boxes' designed at first by the Chicago practices, such as SOM and CF Murphy, and later popular in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the turn of British architects to popularize industrial architecture in the 1980s with exciting new structures such as the Renault Distribution Centre by Foster Associates and the Inmos Microprocessor Factory by Richard Rogers & Partners. These designs involved a close collaboration between architects and engineers, a process which seems to occur more naturally in London than elsewhere and, in particular, in the offices of Foster and Rogers where I was working at the time.

So it was with this background knowledge and interest in the architectural engineering of long-span large-volume spaces that I set up in practice in 1983 and was joined by Jim Eyre in 1986. It was not until 1991, however, that we were offered the chance to compete for the design of a big shed - the Stratford Market Depot train maintenance facility for the new Jubilee Line Extension. It was our first major commission: a huge single-volume building measuring 100 x 190m, on which we worked with the engineers Hyder Consulting Ltd. The site constraints and track layout led to a parallelogram-shaped building layout, which in turn generated the form of diagrid roof structure. Since clear spans were not required, it proved more economical to have intermediate columns at 18 x 42m centres, which branch out like trees to connect to three node positions on the shallow-vaulted space structure above. This unusual hybrid structure works well and with the excellent daylighting provides an exciting and functional space for train maintenance. It could just as well be used for other purposes. It is a universal space.

Following the success of the Depot, we were asked by London Underground Ltd in 1994 to take part in the competition for the design of the new Stratford Station, to be the terminus for the Jubilee Line Extension and an interchange with four other lines. We won the commission, and here again, the incredibly complex design brief was translated into a clear diagram with a single column-free space. The asymmetric form of the structure moves away from the simple box to a dramatic and exciting space, which suits the specific requirements of function and context.

A year later in 1995, the brief for the design of the headquarters building for Dyson Appliances Ltd in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, required a more conventional kind of space for the design, research, testing, manufacture, assembly, storage and distribution of their vacuum cleaners. The phenomenal success of the innovative bagless vacuum cleaners, invented by James Dyson, led to the need for fast, flexible, economical and extendable space. He also wanted the building to express the identity of the company and its products. The resulting structure, which was designed with the engineer Tony Hunt, uses standard universal steel sections rolled to a curve for the roof on a 10 x 20m grid, 7.5m high, with long-span profiled-steel decking that provides lateral bracing. The same structure provides the spatial enclosure for all the different activities housed within the building and allows for the inclusion of a mezzanine floor level where required. Parts of the building are highly serviced and these run on purpose-designed ladder beams suspended from the structure with flexibility to add more as required. The cladding varies from low-cost profiled-steel sheeting in the storage and production areas to a sophisticated glazed curtain walling system in the office areas, but there is flexibility to accept many alternative cladding options. It has already proved to be an extremely adaptable building and will no doubt continue to undergo changes throughout its life, a universal space limited only by its column grid and its height.

Universal space implies a kind of 'loose-fit flexibility', which is not specific to a single user, and there are many examples of redundant industrial structures being transformed with considerable success for an entirely different use. WilkinsonEyre, for example, has been involved in converting both a Grade II-listed GWR train shed in Bristol into a Science Centre and the redundant Templeborough Steel Reprocessing Works at Rotherham into a new Millennium Visitor Attraction. The somewhat clumsy Henebique concrete structure of the Bristol train shed has adapted surprisingly well to the highly serviced requirements of the new Science Centre and adds a note of historical reference to the advanced technology contents. The large-volume area, with relatively long spans between columns, provides flexible exhibition space which combines well with the bright new spaces constructed alongside. The new reads clearly alongside the old, and a fresh identity is created.

At Magna in Rotherham, the vast cathedral-like structure of the redundant steelworks provides a dramatic dark space, 350m long and over 7 storeys high. The powerful steel structure is enhanced by a patina of surface rust and the rough steel cladding bears the scars of extreme heat from the furnaces and the cauldrons of molten steel, which were transported through the space by overhead cranes. Too dark for modern manufacturing processes, the space nevertheless provides an exciting backdrop for the new Millennium- funded visitor attraction, which has 'steel' as its major theme. Our design places four separate pavilions within the space, accessed by bridges and walkways suspended from the existing structure. Each pavilion in different and takes one of the four elements as its theme: earth, water, air and fire, which all play a part in the steel-making process. The new interventions represent current technology and provide a dramatic contrast to the industrial archaeology of the recent past of heavy industry. A long-span, single-volume space, with flexibility for adaptation and change of use, the essence of the original space has been retained for visitors to appreciate.

In summary, there is a general requirement for large flexible spaces to house all kinds of activities, but there is also a fundamental need within us to experience space of a higher order. Perhaps we have a psychological desire to see man-made space on the same scale as nature in order to assert our place in the universe. Most of us are moved by the views of a panoramic landscape, or by the sight of a clear, starlit night sky, and we experience a similar feeling when we enter one of the great Gothic cathedrals. The scale and proportions of the space trigger the feeling of spiritual reverence. Similarly, the parish church fulfils the same requirements and the spires and roofs of these important buildings, which stand out above the surroundings, punctuate both rural and urban landscapes.

Fewer people go to church regularly nowadays but perhaps other forms of building can provide this need for spiritually uplifting space. Perhaps it is now the turn of the huge regional shopping malls or the massive sports stadia – in which case let us all try to raise the quality of their architecture so that these buildings not only fulfil a practical function but also a spiritual need.

Chris Wilkinson

This essay originally appeared in the practice monograph 'Bridging Art and Science' (Booth –Clibborn Editions, 2001).