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Rocket science

BUILDING STUDY: At the National Space Centre in Leicester Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners faced an astronomical challenge.The result is a small step for the architect but a giant leap for provincial leisure facilities

''Once the missiles go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, ' says Wernher von Braun. . .' So sang Tom Lehrer of the creater of the infamous V2 rocket in the Second World War who went on to work on the Apollo space programme for the US.

But at least von Braun's rockets went somewhere, unlike 'Blue Streak', that icon of British decline round about the time that Harold Macmillan passed the nosebag on to Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

A new Blue Streak, I am happy to report, having seen it in Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners' National Space Centre in Leicester, is neither blue, nor a streak. It is riveted and stainless-steel ribbed, rather as if the designers of a First World War dreadnought had tried to adapt their palette of materials to the creation of inter-continental ballistic missiles, having paused for aesthetic inspiration at the interior design of 1950s Scandinavian civic buildings.

This, and the adjacent Thor Abel rocket, the centre's principal exhibits, touch on the aesthetic dilemmas that faced Grimshaw. As project architect Matt Eastwood puts it, the challenge was: 'How do you enclose a rocket?'

Rockets generally defy enclosure and, if the project were a silo. . . . well, Waterloo shows Grimshaw's mettle when designing a building from which something emerges.

At Leicester, the problem was to enclose while suggesting a journey to infinity, no ordinary problem for a practice which comes from the Arts and Crafts tradition of truth to materials and literal expression of function.

The logical result was a tower, 38m tall, whose subtle form derives from (unlike von Braun) caring very much where it comes down. In Eastwood's words, its shape comes from the perception that 'from the high point we wanted to come down as fast as possible'.

With inflated ETFE bands ringing its complex arched frame, the tower is not unlike an etiolated version of Bibendum.

(aka the Michelin Man). Contrasting with its verticality is a low, flat podium that contains most of the display, education and research facilities and offices.With the planetarium dome protruding through it, the effect recalls Oscar Niemeyer's capitol complex in Brasilia; this, in turn, reminds us that a tower and podium is one of the ur-compositions of Modernism, from Lever Brothers House onwards.

Here there is obvious justification - the podium occupies a redundant surface water and sewage-holding tank - but it also indicates the extent of Grimshaw's challenge.

For, if an apostle of High-Tech architecture has to revisit the classic parti of Modernist urban office buildings as the logical response to designing a space science centre, what does that tell us about 1950s office working, technology and our understanding of space?

Eastwood explains that the team were keen to avoid using the language of space imagery, derived from the popular culture gamut of Flash Gordon to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jon Jerde would have relished such kitsch references, but not Grimshaw. 'There is a trap that, hopefully, we've managed to avoid, ' shudders Eastwood. 'Where there are visual cues, they do a proper job.' Just as uncle Pugin ordered.

These 'visual cues', especially the spiral and cladding, are interesting because they show how extremely capable architects with a highly specific sensibility wrestled with the infinite inversions of space. This is the crux of what makes the project gripping, because here Grimshaw stands for the whole HighTech tradition.

The spiral emanates from the planetarium, the 'centre of the exhibition'. It swirls around the podium, kisses the tower and sweeps out through the car park along a boulevard of trees before disappearing in the surroundings of the municipal dump and a car-crushing plant. If sending rubbish into space is a dangerous science fiction fantasy, then Leicester City Council has inverted it by invoking space to launder rubbish.

Despite being the principal organising armature, the spiral is best seen from the top ofthe tower, but it is a functional, relevant, non-kitsch reference to space - it aids the throughput of audiences in the planetarium.

Wrapping the podium, the perforated stainless steel cladding is visually more obvious. Part of its function, too, is practical: to prevent direct sunlight from striking walls and windows. It also gives the block the mysterious homogeneity that the architect sought - and, if Julian Stocks' art installation had not fallen victim to a 30 per cent budget cut, there would have been added interest in the shape of anamorphic images such as the opening sequence of Star Trek.

Eastwood explains that the idea was to display on the outside something of the contents. In using the cladding as a system of narrative reference rather than an expression of inherent nature, it relates to the greatest of 19th century architect-educators, Gottfried Semper, who accorded cladding a special place in the architectural theory as an expression of construction and cultural tradition.

Here, then, is another, albeit subliminal, recognition that Grimshaw's architectural palette needs to expand to meet the challenges of the 21st century. All the wonder of its great buildings comes from gravity-defying feats, from putting materials together in ways that pertain to the physical conditions of Earth, and deriving from intellectual conditions that were enunciated in the 19th century. Grimshaw has stuck closer than anyone to Pugin's prescription that there should be nothing about a building that is not there for convenience, propriety or function.

Grimshaw's overt embrace of technology should not mislead because, with the exception of computer power, it still depends on 19th-century physics. Go into space and our architectural concepts become redundant.

The 'authentic' is hardly useful where there is no gravity; materials assume different characteristics, and supposedly parallel lines weave themselves into a Gordian knot that no theorist can untangle.

After all, scientists are just as confused about space as the rest of us; that's one of the things the National Space Centre is meant to advance. Its partners include the University of Leicester and the city council. As Eastwood explains, it has facilities for serious research, education, and entertainment. It also has a role in creating a 'string of pearls' studding the proposed linear park along the River Soar.

Grimshaw's design is perhaps best seen as another stage in humankind's attempt to come to terms with the infinite, but in a specific context. It applies the architectural panoply of material and structural expression to the particular manifestation of the infinite offered by space.

Architectural interpretations depend on contingent conditions. The history of architecture might be characterised as humankind's struggle to render the concept of gravity into some form of cultural understanding. Take gravity away and Gothic cathedrals, Santiago Calatrava and the Skylon tower become rather pointless.

Amid these dilemmas, the centre deserves to be successful. It is a serious attempt to update our creaking old provincial leisure facilities, tackling an inherently interesting subject by going back to the roots of a museum as a place of education and research as much as of leisure.

There are spectacular objects, like a piece of a Mir space craft discovered in the undergrowth of a Moscow courtyard and bought for £100,000, as well as missiles and satellites. It is also possible to get into a simulated space capsule or snack under the Blue Streak and Thor Abel exhausts. Many other surreal possibilities arise when we try to construct a home for non-domestic objects.

And if its architecture struggles with the paradox of combating gravity to simulate a gravityless environment, and of needing straight lines to set out a structure that deals with vortices, it is in a long tradition.

In hinting at a move away from Pugininan prescription to Semperian exploration of meaning, Grimshaw seems to recognise that aesthetics deals with illusion and allusion, rather than literal meanings. Why shouldn't Blue Streak represent technology, Thor Abel and Mir stand for international harmony and an inflated tower for space flight? As Tom Lehrer asserted: 'When correctly viewed, everything is lewd.'

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