It's not a bad thing to be reminded every so often that the dawning of the age of information has not eliminated the need for manufacturing. Indeed, until we develop our own biological telepathy organs we will still need little gadgets to break down and recompose information so that it can be transmitted and understood. Nor is it a bad thing, every so often, to see a factory where such devices are made; not so much to marvel at the wonders of modern technology, as to discover how much the challenge of designing a factory can add to an appreciation of architecture.
Factories demand a fundamental and unique approach to design. It's obvious that they have to be cheap; this requires a knowledge of materials and construction techniques, and other types of below-the-line, avoidance- of-pain issues. But they also depend on the manipulation of infrastructure, the capability for change, the understanding of different scales, and an almost ritualised regulation of the interplay between people, goods, waste and information. In short, factories are the closest phenomena to urban life to be packaged up into single 'architectural projects'. The centripetal forces which have taken architecture out of factories, and factories out of architecture, work to the detriment of both, so the unambiguous union of the two in the isl (now Viasystems) North Tyneside plant on Newcastle's Balliol Business Park is salutary.
Scale alone is a challenge; at 50,000m2 it's the largest printed circuit- board plant in Europe, and second in the world. Added to this is the complex mix of production processes, each with different storage, supply and waste requirements. There is also the servicing load, and the demand for something more than a production facility; an entrance, a canteen, conference centre, offices and laboratories. These give a reason for differences, counterpoints to the main bulk which the production facility inevitably is.
The design is the result of a three-way collaboration between the client, isl-founder Ivan Bradbury, who has now sold out to Viasystems, his consultant architect Michael Grice, whose name would be better known if he and his colleagues, as Architects Co-Partnership, had not relinquished so much individuality, and the Ryder Company, a Newcastle-based firm of building designers - engineers as well as architects. It is a strong team and each has a substantial input: Bradbury is an American physicist and graduate of Harvard Business School, whom both Grice and Ryder talk of with a mixture of awe and dread. They credit him with planning the building services; he has now turned his attention to the National Health Service. He was a strong-viewed, strong-willed and informed client, 'a singular character with an intense interest in and very particular view of design', remembers Ryder director Peter Buchan.
Grice was Bradbury's experienced long-standing consultant whose 'conceptual input' was converted, he remembers, through Ryder's collaborative and executive contribution with such skill that 99.9 per cent of the drawings were completed before work on site started, 'paving the way for a trouble- free job'. He was 'defending the Empire in India' while his acp colleagues designed the Bryn Mawr rubber factory, an icon of industrial architecture but one which some commentators find a trifle over-designed. A year with Asplund in the late 1930s was 'the foundation of how I worked', though influencing him 'more in the way ... he saw things' than in the actual form of his buildings; the North Tyneside factory does not immediately recall the great Swedish master.
Ryder's considerable experience in industrial architecture helped; Buchan finds the challenge of low cost 'enormously satisfying', especially in 'trying to come to terms with and to quantify industry ... being very economical means being about process and operation - the building reflects what goes on inside'. The Ryder Company is a venerable north-eastern practice whose roots go back to Ryder and Yates, founded in 1950, which became the Ryder Nicklin Partnership before adopting its present name and structure in 1997. Its approach is crisp and clean in a way which aspires to Miesian without the artifice. Nowhere is this clearer than in its home patch of Killingworth, the post-coal-mining suburb of Newcastle where it has been based for some time, and where the buildings, including its own office and a famous group for the Gas Board, show that Nan Fairbrother's vision of an industrial arcadia of empty roads and striking buildings in park- land settings might almost have come into being.
Killingworth is an early example of Newcastle's industry escaping the Tyne gorge as soon as it ceased to be site-specific. The end of ship-building meant it did not need to be on a river, and the decline of coal obviated the need to be on a coal seam. Printed circuit boards can be made anywhere; that anyone would choose to make them in Newcastle depends on a delicate balance of transport, labour skills, land availability and lifestyle. It is the sort of decision which reflects the change from prosaic, physical Modernist certainties to post-modern ephemera. Bradbury's decision to construct a major facility on Tyneside owned something to the availability of a site on Balliol Business Park - coincidentally where Ryder's had just completed a much smaller though formally and operationally striking laboratory for Novocastro, a biotechnology company which has grown from Newcastle University - and something to history. By the end of 1996 isl had completely filled its existing facility, an unlovely former Plessy factory on South Tyneside to which Grice and Ryder had added a striking entrance, and by some clever remodelling overcome a level-change between the shop floor and offices; nothing could be done with the factory itself.
The hills above Newcastle have a freshness and sense of space which feels un-English. It's a sense which the new factory reinforces, with its careful landscaping, disciplined facades and bmws in the parking bays. The building is composed of two wings, at right angles to each other; facing the road is the main production block, orientated north-south with a vast, though carefully disciplined, west facade greeting arrivals. With subtle unfussy means, like changing the corrugation of the sheet-metal panels, relating the stair towers to the landscape and car parking, and the louvred shades which protect the offices and laboratories directly behind the facade, the project achieves a composition which neatly illustrates Buchan's comment: 'I get frustrated when people say a building is just a shed. When done properly, you really understand what goes on. It could demand more sophisticated thought processes than a high-spec, West End office; it is certainly a different set of problems'.
Its giant scale means it inevitably hovers between abstract diagram and tangible reality, but this is its strength. Some might see this as a metaphor of the social function of a printed circuit board. The west facade of the main block both suggests a connection with its site and hints at what lies beyond the facade. It sets up one finite condition within what could be a standard cross-section with an extrusion that might continue ad infinitum. Placing the offices and production in the single main volume also has a functional logic. If the offices grow they expand into the production area, which itself can expand to the east. A very deep service zone in the roof allows for any configuration of production line, while ducts below the floor slab feed different materials from tanks and vats - some containing noxious substances - on the southern facade. Finished goods exit from the north. On one level it has a diagrammatic clarity - another metaphor of the product? - on another it is as inscrutable as its microscopic products and the closely guarded secrets of their manufacture. No-one can deny some relationship between form and function; it covers all bases within its limitations of language and budget.
If the major wing deals with subtle abstraction the minor wing has more conventional architectural possibilities. It has the entrance and a two- storey pavilion with a canteen above a conference centre, conceived, in Grice's words, as a break-out space with views over the countryside. He also outlines the thinking behind the 'quirky' entrance, 'it's hard to make an entrance in a glass wall', he says of the canopy projecting from a plain glass facade whose origins, he remembers, lie in a Porsche showroom in West London which Bradbury knew. Behind, and hardly concealed, are the two staircases in scissors formation, an example of that old modernist trick where moving people add ornament, colour and randomness which architectural thinkers prescribe. It is both calming and clear, leading one way to the production facility, and the other to the canteen and conference suite.
One of the lessons Grice remembers from his time with Asplund is 'the consistency of his work within a concept'. Asplund's greatest works, like law courts, cemeteries and libraries, had an inherent complexity built into their programmes; humanistic functions which can reach resolution in human actions. A factory programme is at once more brittle and more prosaic, it offers leaner meat for architectural thought. But Asplund's lesson fits well with Buchan's commitment to making architecture out of industry, a combination which makes a disciplined and expressively reticent design out of Bradbury's conceptual diagram.
Above and right: the 'quirky' entrance canopy was inspired by a Porsche showroom in West London. Below: as well as being low-cost, the factory design is based on an almost ritualised understanding of the interplay between people, goods, waste and information