The road from the Meadowhall Centre to the Magna Science Adventure Centre is a microcosm of the social - and architectural - history of Britain during the past two decades.
Chapman Taylor's Meadowhall in Sheffield is already a period piece, a showy Post-Modernist monument to the boom years of the 1980s, its domes and arcaded malls engulfed in decks of parking.
Shoppers come from Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds - more than 30 million of them a year. From there the route to Magna winds its way for a mile or so, under the M1, across a tangle of roundabouts and slip roads, past notices pointing out zones of high air pollution (and begging motorists to consider using public transport next time), a straggle of broken-down houses, one of which proclaims itself the 'Mirage Sauna', and large expanses of waste land so polluted that even the foot-and-mouth virus would be hard pressed to survive there.
These are familiar images of post-industrial Britain, yet industry lives on in South Yorkshire. Stretches of the road into Rotherham from Sheffield are still dominated by the great sheds generated by steel manufacture. These days, relatively few men - it was always a male trade - work in steel. The industry is highly automated and highly specialised; production of heavy engineering steel has largely vanished from the face ofindustrial Britain (and, indeed, Europe).
It is hard to imagine, just half a century ago, 10,000 men working in the Templeborough Melting Shop, the raw material for Wilkinson Eyre's Magna.
The works opened in 1917 in response to demand for steel generated by the First World War. Its 14 open-hearth furnaces were again working flat out during the Second World War, producing the raw material for shells, guns and tanks. Extensively modernised in the 1950s, when the furnaces were electrified, the plant finally closed in 1993. It could easily have shared the fate of dozens of similar complexes in the area, flattened and replaced by new development or simply left as a derelict site. In Rotherham, however, the Templeborough Works was seen as a monument to the thousands who had worked there and the hundreds who had died there - steel-making was notoriously dangerous.
Magna's origins lay in the local authority's ambition to create a steel heritage centre at Templeborough - a fine idea, but hard to fund. Responding to the demands of the National Lottery for 'distinctive' projects, notably those with a progressive educational agenda, the focus switched to a broader, science-based 'experience'. Initially, the revamped project was developed by RTKL;
Wilkinson Eyre was brought in three years ago. Given the scale of the project - the complex of buildings is said to be three times the size of the Tate Modern - it has been achieved in double-quick time. Stephen Feber, Magna's chief executive, believes that the involvement of the Stadium Group, which runs the Meadowhall Centre, was vital in providing know-how and giving the project credibility.
Of the total cost of £46.5 million, nearly half has come from the Millennium Commission, with substantial contributions from English Partnerships and the ERDF.
Wilkinson Eyre's Chris Wilkinson is the author of a seminal work, Supersheds, and the context for Magna is, appropriately, a truly monumental double-aisled shed, 350m long with an internal height of 30m. Steel making did not generate elaborate architecture (save for the occasional office building) - what was required was a huge enclosed space, protected from the weather, within which machines the size of buildings were housed. Templeborough Works was typical of the breed: a workmanlike, windowless container clad in corrugated sheet steel.
Marc Barron ofWilkinson Eyre recalls initial visits to the site as a voyage of discovery.
'We surveyed it by torchlight, ' he says; there were no existing drawings as a starting point.
It was a matter of identifying the spaces, deciding what should be kept from the mass of machinery and detritus inside them and devising a way in which these rough-hewn interiors could be made usable for a visitor attraction.
The works was not listed - steel industry buildings do not interest aesthetes - so that the architects had carte blanche to demolish or retain elements of the building. It was decided to de-clad (rather than demolish) a line of sheds, including the former scrap bay, along the north side of the complex to create better access to the site - and, perhaps, to reduce the daunting scale of the buildings.
The structural bones of the sheds have been left in place and one area remains partly clad - linked to a monumental porte-cochere it forms the entrance to Magna. The exposed flank of the main shed has simply been reclad in a mix of black-painted steel sheeting and red GRP - the translucency of this material makes the building a beacon by night and by day gives a lurid glow to the interior.
Having defined the volume of the project, the architects set out to devise a strategy for public access. It was not a matter of converting the complex to a new use. Servicing the whole internal space would have been quite impractical. 'It was obvious that this had to remain, as it always had been, an 'outside/inside' space, where you might need a coat in winter, ' says Marc Barron. Nor was it possible to give the building a decorative makeover - the uneven floors, lumps of jagged metal and retained cauldrons and hoppers would stay, a nightmare in health and safety terms. A way had to be found of allowing the public to experience the building and access the new exhibits it was to contain without having to venture to ground level.Wilkinson Eyre's solution was to insert a new upper-level circulation route through the main shed, serving a series of new structures inserted into the space. As they are not exposed to the elements, these interventions benefit from economies of materials and cost. The ground floor remains to be colonised at some future date - a section at the east end of the building has been earmarked as temporary exhibition galleries. As Barron points out: 'You could do anything you wanted - the structural constraints were nil.' The floors could withstand any weight and a massive crane rail extending down the main shed was tough enough to support a number of new buildings.
The design programme reflects Stephen Feber's conviction that the secret of success for attractions such as Magna is comprehensibility and legibility - the themes have to be clear and the connections obvious.
You enter via the former concasting bay, where scrap metal was rendered into raw steel. The sleek look of the entrance area, with pay desks and shop, may seem at odds with the spirit of the place, but from here visitors pass directly into a massive full-height space marked on plans as 'human element' - a dramatic multimedia display of the history of Templeborough and the local steel industry.
From here, the visitor route ascends to the upper walkway and the scale and power of the space quickly becomes obvious.
The former transformer house at the heart of the works has been retained as a connector to the four themed pavilions (air, earth, water, fire). The air pavilion takes the form of a fabric-clad dirigible suspended from the crane rail, a beautifully economical and elegant structure designed in association with engineer Neil Thomas. The Earth Pavilion which sits below, carved out of the main floor level has, in contrast, a subterranean feel; everything here is, to some extent, deliberately unfinished. (Marc Barron points to a massive and particularly lethal metal projection and explains that great efforts were made to remove it, to no avail. ) The Water Pavilion is another piece of lightweight metallic construction, with the effortless elegance one associates with Wilkinson Eyre - the counterpoint with the heavyweight setting is well considered.
Finally, fire is suitably isolated at the far end of the shed - a kerosene-fuelled pillar of flame provides a climax to the experience of Magna.
The final section of the visitor route is particularly dramatic, with a retained arc furnace (the 'big melt' - it sounds like a delicacy on offer in Meadowhall) emitting appropriate sparks and crashes and electric sparks crackling overhead - throughout the building, there is an air of menace, as if one false step could pitch you into a cauldron of molten metal. Exiting from the Fire Pavilion, visitors enjoy an awesome view the length of the building.
Magna is terrifically entertaining - and educational - and you may find some AJ readers queuing for the JCB experience in the earth pavilion.
It remains to be seen whether it can attract 250,000-300,000 visitors a year and succeed where several Lottery projects in South Yorkshire seem already to have failed.
All seems to hang on the Meadowhall link and the motorway. In one of England's least affluent areas, with a below-average level of car ownership, Magna has only the most rudimentary public transport links.
Architecturally, Magna has been well served by Wilkinson Eyre. A highly practical diagram, innovative engineering and good detailing are expected of a practice of this calibre. But Magna seems to have had an inspirational effect. 'We set out to interact with a building we admired and then to transform it, ' says Marc Barron. The result is a transformation of world class.
THE EARTH PAVILION Here, the maximum imposed floor load was 15kN/m 2.Structural economy was achieved by introducing new columns and foundations to complement the available existing stanchions.A composite slab with profiled metal decking on grade S355 beams provided a safe and economical floor structure that was tailored to suit the varying design loads.
THE FIRE PAVILION The depth of the threedimensional steelwork floor structure was selected to house a plantroom, contain walkways and to support the perimeter cladding.Six existing stanchions that differed in height, construction and condition provided the eight support points.By varying the continuity and stiffness within the lattice structure, the magnitude of the support reactions was biased towards stanchions with most residual strength and those that would be easier to strengthen.
THE AIR PAVILION Integration of building services, the exhibition and architectural detail resulted in the floor becoming an offset grillage of many small members and steel floor plates. Different grades of steel were utilised to achieve the required proportions for the four main 'cigar'beams, which required high-quality fabrication to produce the required profile.
THE WATER PAVILION The asymmetry within the arches of this Pavilion is reflected in the foundations, which combine spread footings and a steelwork grillage. The conflicting requirements for slender members and limited deflection constrained the design of the arches. Threedimensional structural analysis software was required to model connection stiffness and the stabilising stressed-skin cladding.
DEMOLITIONS, SITE REMEDIATION, BULK EARTHWORKS 1,395,000
Main shed 2,726,000
Entrance area 2,083,000
Human element 293,000
Earth pavilion 732,000
Water pavilion 1,029,000
Fire pavilion 825,000
Air pavilion 860,000
Transformer house 1,044,000
Group element total 9,592,000
EXTERNAL WORKS 2,307,000
OFF SITE WORKS 489,000
TOTAL BUILDING COSTS 15,294,000
(TOTAL PROJECT COST 37,200,000)
The Magna Trust www.magnatrust.org.uk
Wilkinson Eyre Architects www.wilkinsoneyre.com
Bingham Cotterell Mott MacDonald www.mottmac.com
Buro Happold www.burohappold.com
Event Communications www.eventcomm.com
START DATE August 1998
COMPLETION DATE April 2001
PROCUREMENT METHOD Construction management
PROJECT VALUE £46 million
CLIENT The Magna Trust
ARCHITECT Wilkinson Eyre Architects: Marc Barron, Chris Wilkinson, John Coop, Graham Gilmour, Bosco Lam, James Parkin, Chris Poulton, Sebastien Ricard, John Smart, Simon Tonks
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Bingham Cotterell Mott MacDonald
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Deacon Jones
SERVICES ENGINEER Buro Happold
MAIN CONTRACTOR Schal
EXHIBITION DESIGNER Event Communications
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Hyland Edgar Driver
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS air pavilion Vector Specialist Projects; steelwork Billington Modern Structures; architectural metalwork Adey Steelwork; glazing Bennett Architectural Aluminium; M&E Crown House Engineering; landscaping Brambledown Landscape Services; external works Jakto; lifts Independent Lifts; cladding Specialist Cladding Services; aggregates SteelPhalt; cladding supplier Gassail Profiles; ironmongery Scott Beaven; specification writer Schumann Smith; lighting design Spiers & Majoe; paving Marshalls; cladding panels Trespa UK; paint supplier Thortex; metal profile cladding Roofdec