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Foster’s formula: McLaren Production Centre

Obsessed with detail and process-driven, Foster + Partners’ factory for McLaren is as finely tuned as the supercars it produces, writes Felix Mara

Some, but by no means all, of the best architecture is the outcome of collaboration between uncompromising architects and headstrong clients. But even if everything does click, they may not have the opportunity or inclination to repeat the experience.

Foster + Partners’ Production Centre for McLaren Automotive in Woking, which opened in November, is one of these rare cases. It sits next to Fosters’ McLaren Technology Centre, a low-lying, kidney-shaped corporate headquarters, with a lake in the residual space of the circle which circumscribes it - the whole layout resembles a distorted yin-yang mandala of water and Formula 1 technology. After it was completed in 2004, it was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.

Like Foster, McLaren chairman Ron Dennis has a reputation for being a ruthless, performance-focused control freak, obsessed with detail. A heroic, self-made figure at the centre of a cult, by all accounts he saw eye-to-eye with Foster and he shared his vision of an elevating, life-enhancing workplace.

Floor junctions and risers snap together with precision

Also, Dennis, taking great pride in the Technology Centre (MTC) and having had significant input into its design, needed an architect and project team who could deliver a sympathetic neighbour. It needed to be designed and completed within two years - three times as quickly as the MTC - to meet Dennis’ production targets for McLaren Automotive’s new MP4-12C road car. It made sense to stick with the same project team; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In many other ways, the Production Centre (MPC) presented an enormous challenge. The site, which is in a semi-rural area, had a public footpath and flood planes, on top of that there was also a planning restriction on its height. Although its manufacturing floor has a high plot ratio and packs three jumbo jets, it was to be no higher than the Technology Centre. Dennis wanted there to be an element of continuity with the Technology Centre but, as a production facility, it was to have a significantly lower cost per square metre, with sensible running costs. ‘The buildings share a language of colours and materials,’ says Foster + Partners’ senior partner Nigel Dancey, ‘but the Production Centre was conceived as a rawer, more industrial version of the MTC.’

But there’s nothing raw about the MPC’s detailed design and execution, vide the corner stanchions, panels, floor junctions and servicing componentry of the risers, which snap together with exemplary precision.

Noisy processes are confined to glass enclosures. There isn’t a conveyor belt in sight

It’s the sort of project that doesn’t involve tile-cutting because everything has been so carefully set out. This level of quality was all made possible by the keen competition between contractors when it was tendered and, as at the MTC, the cost benefits of working with sponsor-partners, in this case Trimo, Targetti, Ceramiche Pastorelli, Avantgarde Tiling and S. Lucas, who were all keen to be showcased on a project associated with the glamorous Formula 1 team. What’s more industrial about the MPC is the way it is planned, the Darwinian logic that responds to and reflects the linear assembly process of its supercars, each of which might have 13,000 components. ‘The whole layout was very process driven,’ says project architect Iwan Jones.

One of the challenges was not knowing how this process might change in the future. The Production Centre was designed for the assembly of MP4-12Cs (which incidentally do 0-60mph in three seconds), but it will also need to be flexible enough to accommodate the requirements of other models that will be introduced in future. Fosters have provided this flexibility by working with a generous 18 x 18 metre structural module and carefully setting out service runs in trenches below the floor and in the risers, ceilings and perimeter
wall cavities.

There’s also flexibility to provide for the scenario that customers, referred to by Dennis as ‘brand ambassadors’, might in the future collect their custom-made supercars not from a network of showrooms, but from the MPC itself  1, which they will be encouraged to perceive as something akin to a hospital maternity ward. The viewing platform and adjacent spiral staircase could serve as part of this ritual. The provision for this option fuses with the vision-made-reality of a calm, clean, tidy and quiet workplace populated by white-gloved operatives, with reflective white surfaces, ceramic tile flooring, concealed services and noisy processes such as the monsoon wash and rolling road confined to glass enclosures. There isn’t a conveyor belt in sight and robots are scarce, even in the paint shop.

It’s all a world away from the grubby, sometimes fraught environment of car factories of the past. This fusion of possible readings and alternative patterns of use is all part of Norman Foster’s remarkable synthesising talent. Another aspect of this is the way the Production Centre works as a non-building dug into the surrounding landscape, returning to a theme which can be traced back to Team Four’s 2 glass-canopied shelter overlooking the river Fal near their 1966 house at Creek Vean 3.

The Technology Centre, envisioned as a building in harmony with its landscape, also has something of this quality; but it is more pronounced at the MPC, enabling it to read as a foil or a satellite, with a simple rectilinear tea-tray plan form that sets it off from its more flamboyant neighbour. They are connected by a 92-metre tunnel, which Dennis likens to an umbilical cord. The Production Centre was undreamed of when Foster + Partners devised the masterplan for the MTC, at a time when McLaren’s facilities were divided between 13 sites around Woking, and they have done well to pull this off. It will be interesting to see how the proposed McLaren Applied Technology Centre on an adjacent site integrates with this campus.

The external cladding of the MPC, which uses horizontal aluminium tubular sections to animate its sandwich panel-clad facade and rhyme with the detailed design of the Technology Centre, provides hardly any views out and there are no rooflights. It’s true that there would be a maintenance commitment to keep them looking clean and that this space would still rely on artificial lighting to achieve the specified illuminance of 800 lux, but without windows this environment feels subterranean and oppressive.

The facade has little of the poetry of its neighbour’s meandering glass wall, with its elegant horizontally spanning wind blades and elliptical-profiled hangers that maximise transparency and allude to the technology of a 1995 McLaren Formula 1 sports car. But, in places, the MTC is surprisingly over-designed. The geometry and detail of its concave mezzanine-level walkway soffits are unusually fussy for a Foster building, and the repetitive circular cast brackets for the wind blades verge on Art Deco. There’s also something 1950s sci-fi retro about its bullnose profile, overhanging roof and over-literal mezzanine chicanes.

Although austere and reliant on its neighbour’s ample staff facilities and views out, compared to the MTC the Production Centre is tougher, and in some ways more elegant and less flabby, reflecting the input of a more educated client. It is perhaps closer to Dennis’ aspirations for a performance-driven architecture; not exactly a lily, but ungilded all the same.

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