TAG McLaren boss Ron Dennis' obsession with detail made him the ultimate hands-on client.Did Foster, who designed his new HQ, finally meet his match?
There aren't many people who make Norman Foster appear slapdash. But Ron Dennis is one of them. As chief executive of Formula One team TAG McLaren, and client for its new Foster-designed Technology Centre just outside Woking (Building study, pp24-31), Dennis has had plenty of opportunity to view the Foster modus operandi in action.
Already sufficiently impressed with the practice to entrust it with his multi-million flagship building (McLaren refuses to disclose costs but a figure of £160 million has been reported), Dennis found a kindred spirit in Norman Foster himself. Foster's recollection of the meeting is that 'although neither of us knew it when we first met, there was actually a natural synergy between us on a number of aspects of what our companies, in our very different fields, had been trying to do; meeting the challenge of social, technological and lifestyle change, the way they interlock, and looking at the re-evaluation of the workplace as a good place to be'.
Foster and Dennis became such close friends that both felt it would be politic for Foster to cede the running of the project to his senior partner David Nelson on the basis that, as Dennis puts it, 'nothing is more difficult than to criticise a friend'. Nevertheless, as Nelson recalls, 'Ron used to hate coming to the office because he thought it was chaotic. All of a sudden we had a doormat put in - we'd never had a doormat.'
Order and hygiene are big issues for Dennis. That McLaren operates a clear-desk policy goes without saying. More radical is the company no-bins policy. For Dennis, 'wastepaper baskets represent a whole cultural problem.
They attract waste.' Accordingly they have been eliminated, or at least replaced with discreet narrow drawers built into the bespoke office furniture. Little wider than a portfolio, they can accommodate discarded sheets of paper (but not if they are subversively scrunched into unsightly paper balls) and very little else. Not that there is much else. The messy business of eating and drinking is strictly consigned to designated areas.And it is simply inconceivable that the building - or the company - could accommodate the type of person who accumulates miscellaneous junk.
The atmosphere within the supersleek headquarters is positively clinical. True to form, Dennis favours white on the grounds that 'it is definitely the easiest colour to keep clean and conveys a very clinical and hygienic environment' and has commissioned purpose-designed workwear 'which will make our employees look more like surgeons than operatives in an industrial company'.
For Dennis, the environment is the embodiment of his responsibilities towards - and expectations from - his employees. Dennis started out as a mechanic and started his own team with a fellow mechanic in 1972, but a bad road accident forced him into a managerial role and he swiftly developed a hands-on high-voltage management style.
He subscribes to the mantra that 'If you can get the mindset that you look forward to going to work then you've got a very productive workshop' and says 'I don't think it's right to send people home smelling of their workplace'. In return he expects absolute commitment and the degree of obsessive attention to detail which is necessary for the design and manufacture of £350,000 cars.
Dennis, like Foster, sees a clear relationship between his core business and the process of designing the building. 'There are lots of parallels to Formula One. There has been the same search for perfection, the same search for performance and the same demand for cutting-edge technology - but proven cutting-edge technology. We didn't want to be a guinea pig for technology, but we did want the latest and the best.'
But compared to McLaren's super hightech trade, even the most exacting architecture is an imprecise messy affair. 'The Foster spec is pretty high standard, ' says Nelson.
'But Ron sees our spec as the lowest standards possible he will expect.' Although Nelson and Dennis have also become 'good friends and colleagues', he admits that 'meeting the man for the first time was fairly forbidding'. In fact, 'the meetings are still forbidding. I gave up counting at 150. I think we must be at 250 now. And they are three or four hours long.' Dennis explains his unusual degree of commitment by saying, 'I always said 'if we are going to do this thing, let's do it in microscopic detail''.And so he did. 'We had 25 people on this full-time and he still caught us out, 'Nelson is quick to confirm.
Nevertheless, Dennis is delighted with the results, and takes as much pride in the 'behind-the-scenes' aspects of the building as with its outward appearance. For Dennis, buildings, like his cars, should be 'just as beautiful with their clothes off as with their clothes on'. But the headquarters is more than simply a virtuoso technological performance and an exemplary workplace. 'A lot of this building is about brand and what we stand for as a brand, ' says Dennis. He uses the phrase 'mental aftertaste' to describe the impression a building can make on the visitor, and feels that he has achieved his dream of a mental aftertaste which is '90 per cent automotive/NASA and 10 per cent Disney. The Disney element is the magic you can create in the area producing your products. Perhaps 10 per cent magic would be more accurate.'
It has been a long haul getting there, and for Dennis, who typically took responsibility for finding a site, the slog started long before the interminable meetings with Foster. The lengthy process of finding a site (initial plans to build on a parcel of land in Kent that he bought 'very secretly' back in 1988 were scuppered when staff informed him that they had no desire to move to Kent), gaining permission to build on the Green Belt and the relentless pursuit of innovation and perfection have taken their toll. Dennis concedes that the building is late, but adds that 'it is very complex - it's occupied the best part of 15 years of my life'. And it wasn't even his day job: 'We've got this thing called a Formula One Team which is a bit of a distraction.'