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Howzat!

Future Systems' Medai Centre at Lord's combines the construction techniques of the shipyard with hi-tech gadgetry to become an unexpected cricketing icon

When the Marylebone Cricket Club, or Lord's for short, commissioned Sir Michael Hopkins to design the Mound Stand in 1986, it marked the beginning of a relationship with contemporary architects and architecture which has proved as enlightened as it is enduring. Traced through the (many) works on site of David Morley Architects and the 1998 Grand Stand by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, this road has now led to Future Systems and its powerful new NatWest Media Centre.

It's what the practice's Amanda Levete calls an 'instinctive' building, by which she means that it is an instantly graspable icon - as easy to understand for the committee as for planners, for schoolchildren as for adults, and for the commentators as for the fee-paying public. 'We did a lot of technical research into the building but at a certain point it's not rational,' Levete says. 'It's to do with sculpting it until it feels right, and it's why it hasn't changed from the competition stage. We got it right as a symbol and as a container - and when something's right it's that which communicates.'

The Media Centre came about after Lord's ran a limited invited competition in 1995 to settle on its design to replace outmoded, cramped facilities on site and to prepare for the likely media deluge for the World Cup starting next month (14 May). Other shortlisted practices at the time included the gmw Partnership, Lifschutz Davidson and David Morley Architects. The latter practice has successfully designed not only the famed Lord's indoor cricket school, but the masterplan for the ground, the shop, offices for the Test and County Cricket Board (now the England and Wales Cricket Board) and, nearing completion, the Nursery Pavilion - the tented hospitality facilities at the Nursery End. Morley has also completed refurbishment of the Allen Stand and designed the free-standing scoreboard next to the Media Centre. He feels Future Systems' winning creation 'side-steps a lot of the issues about scale which a traditional building would have had to have tackled'. In other words, although it's very large, it 'floats'.

The centre's completion warrants a new look at the entire arena, which avoids becoming an architectural zoo, managing instead to retain both a wholeness and, perversely, an element of individuality to each component. This is unlike the unsightly ragbag of development of say, the Kennington Oval, Lord's poor relation in the capital. If anything, the latest arrival confers upon its neighbours a slightly unadventurous feeling. It is the radical urban touch of the outsider, cocking just a slight snook at the snooty, staid traditionalists at the other end - the tee shirt to the striped-tie-and-blazer brigade.

The Lord's people had invited Future Systems to take part as a by-product of another project the practice was already working on - see-through sight- screens for the ground to increase crowd figures. In the end that quest proved fruitless, but the practice had proved a lttle of its ingenuity in the process.

From the outset, Jan Kaplicky, Amanda Levete and project architect David Miller were convinced that the building should be manufactured off-site, in a shipyard, from aluminium, using a semi-monocoque (ribbed) technique. This is perhaps its most significant feature. (In Future Systems' latest book, More For Inspiration Only, a picture of the building faces its 'inspiration' - the Australia II aluminium yacht of 1983). To persuade the board to accept the innovative solution, however, was difficult, and required extensive presentations before they could grasp the idea of moving away from traditional construction methods. Levete says it also added around a year on to the four-year construction programme - originally there was to have been a year-long test-run of the centre before the World Cup began in earnest. The architects finally managed to persuade the committee of the 'crafting' benefits of the proposed techniques after a visit to the Pendennis shipyard in Falmouth, Cornwall. This has paid off - the building's curving organic form looks like a friendly alien, like et (as one letter to the aj had it at the time of the competition); or a camera lens or periscope fixing on the action from behind the bowler's arm.

Inside, the attention to detail, for instance in the use of mahogany, the constant testing of panels and the curving walls of the bar area, reflects the care put into the job by the shipbuilders (who lived in modular buildings on site). It gleams, and you want to touch it. Nicknames will abound for the building, but the architects don't mind, seeing it as proof of its popularity. But if it had been a public building in a more public area, its avant-garde nature would have been (sadly) more difficult for locals to have stomached.

Both the boat-builders and the architects learned on the job, and Levete says the 'can-do' nature of the Pendennis workers - whose usual stock in trade is 'super-yachts' - was a refreshing change from traditional builders. This 'deck-shoes versus wellington boots' approach provides a timely model for the Egan-like 'rethinking' of construction and innovation, an unlikely departure by an institution not noted for its radicalism.

And so to function. The building is accessed via two concrete stair towers - originally in early sketches it was just one - or by a lift. The towers have been left partially clad for cost reasons, and accommodate the bulky cabling the tv crews install and dismantle every match. The stairwells also provide access to the Hopkins-designed Compton and Edrich Stands, which the Centre straddles. The media centre stands cheekily, but with reverence to its noted companions, 15m in the air, with its top edge 21m above the ground. Extensive research has shown that although it is actually possible to strike a cricket ball to reach the building, the glass - 12mm laminated plus 6mm annealed - is strong enough to resist blows of even 80mph, and panes will not fall on to spectators below. Phew! The 40m glass frontage is sharply angled downwards to prevent reflections dazzling the players, and allows the specially commissioned cool baby-blue tones inside to be visible from around the ground. The 'mid-range' colour also avoids throwing the building's users into too much contrast with their backgrounds when they get up and move around.

The view of the playing area from inside is, as you'd expect, giddyingly good, sometimes vertiginous. The glass is to be cleaned by brave abseilers, while inside journalists can use blinds to minimise solar gain, using controls that can be overridden by the steward, again so that the players are not disturbed. Initially the building was to have been naturally ventilated but its west-facing position, added to the amount of heat-producing equipment likely to be used inside such as tvs and lights, forced the decision to use air-conditioning, the plant for which is at the rear of the building. The practice's choice of interior colour also contributed to the psychology of creating a 'cool' building - walls, ceilings and carpets are all in icy blues chosen with great care, and inspired, say Miller and Levete, by the interior of a 1957 Chevrolet car.

One hundred and twenty writers will sit below in the main space in white Jacobsen chairs on castors (in contrast to the usual white walls, coloured chairs) at four stepped tiers of desks, each with sockets for laptops, isdn and an extra one for electronic paraphernalia yet to be invented. At each end of the main space is an 'innocently detailed' NatWest hospitality box, with walls finished in a blue suede-like synthetic material, and tv screens hanging down to show replays and scores. To the rear is a bar and restaurant area (50 covers) with a large oval window giving views out on to the practice area and the David Morley quartet of buildings beyond. Other rooms include faintly maritime-themed wcs - including two female wcs and one for disabled people - a photographers' room with facilities to send digital images down the wire, and a kitchen. Lockers are provided for journalists to leave their papers to report on the next day's play.

A mezzanine floor is accessed by two powder-blue spiral staircases at each end of the writers' area. Disabled access can be via a stairlift. Broadcasting by 100 people takes place from up here in a series of temperature- adjustable rooms. Desks had design advice input from people such as commentator Richie Benaud, who wanted facilities big enough to allow a monitor to be dropped into a desk crevice without impeding his view of the action. However, the legendary Test Match Special radio broadcasting team upset the applecart a little by requesting a working window in the glass frontage, for atmosphere. Future Systems' provided a heavy window on a winch which opens inwards to horizontal, again so that reflections are avoided.

The budget rose to the £5 million eventual cost because in the original brief there were no hospitality boxes and no air-conditioning. But this is peanuts for a new icon, a demonstration that new forms of construction are possible and sometimes preferable, and for a new building which is very much a loveable alien in a familiar setting.

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