(Swindon, England) 1980-83
Norman Foster's ideas about design are often seen as highly iconoclastic applications of unprecedented technological inventions. In fact, this is merely an impression gained from his bold use of industrial components, his emphasis on strong outlines without shadow modulations, on muscled figures on the outside and loud colour, sometimes reminiscent of a Fernand Léger painting turned into architecture. And like Léger's pictorial universe, Foster's architectural world and predilection for newness has a long tradition: Charles and Ray Eames. Jean Prouvé, Buckminster Fuller, not to mention ship and aeroplane design, with which the building has not only an elective affinity, but of which it is a direct technological citation. In addition to antecedents, Foster's style also has contemporaries, such as
Richard Rogers' Fleetguard manufacturing and distribution centre in Quimper, France (1981), which, like Foster's Renault Centre, also uses masts and a suspension system for the roof.
The Renault Centre accommodates offices, a restaurant and an exhibition space, and is eventually intended to expand to a 30,000 square-metre warehouse with 10,000 square metres of office space. The emphasis is on flexibility. The building is constructed on an irregularly shaped sloping site of 6.5 hectares using a single, regular, square grid. In order to adapt to the site's configuration, a number of grid units have been removed from one side of the plan, a solution that keeps the mutilation of the overall order of space to a minimum. On the other hand, to satisfy the needs of eventual
(Above, left) Isometric view of the Renault Centre
(Left) A structural bay
(Above) Detail of the top of a mast
(Opposite) General view development, the plan can grow by adding units over time in any direction, without dis turbing the basic grid system.
Each unit of the grid is 7.5 metres high at its lowest point and 9.5 metres at the apex. The roof of each unit is suspended from cables attached to a central 16-metre-high, pre stressed, circular mast of rolled, hollow steel, with 8 radiating steel beams, very much asm Buckminster Fuller's 4D structures of the 1920s. Unlike Fuller's free-standing units, however, Foster's 'suspended umbrellas' are assembled to form a system. As a result, the partly cantilevered, partly hung beams of the units come together to unite into arches, which in turn are strengthened by a system of cables. Construction follows the 'guy' principle: wea* structural elements are reinforced at their
particularly weak points. In the case of the long span of the Renault arched roof, reinforcement is implemented through the use of an under-spanning cable and two studs in combination with external cable stayed strengthening. It is an elaborate, highly reliable structure where suspension and support are strategically combined to maximize its effectiveness and efficiency. But it is not only economy that is gained through this intricate space system. The structure is an essay on how forces travel Inspace and how materials behave, a cognitive mapping of how resolution and composition of forces work, how compression and tension stresses combine.
Natural lighting and transparency are key features of the building. Light comes from the sides as well as from the roof, a clear glass panel being placed at each column. In addition, a roof-light unit made out of double-skin, translucent PVC louvres is positioned in the centre of each module. These units, placed strategically at the apex of the roof system, can be opened to ventilate the space. The external walls of the space are made out of special panels of expanded polyurethane foam insulation encased between two sheets of steel. Roof lights and walls are glazed with an assembly of reinforced glass, the overall construction detail being that of the Pilkington 'Planar' system.
The office, showroom and restaurant furniture, the chairs and storage units, are a combination of special systems designed by the architects and items re-used from other Renault facilities.
The building offers a wonderful series of connections, of intricate joints, of details of compression and tension, which have an emblematic quality, almost as elegant and memorable as a classical Ionic capital. The masts too have an emblematic character, half resembling machine parts, half totemic. anthropomorphic figures that appear to hover in the open landscape.
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