Some time ago, when the Millennium Dome was still a good idea, Ray Hole was invited to enter a competition to design a visitor attraction for the year 2000 as part of a major national exhibition.
He came up with an innovative, futuristic domelike structure, built on a near circular plan with a series of different 'zones' inside - but this one has become a runaway success with the public.
The Rainforest House and 'experience' Hole designed for the Expo in Hanover (see page 8) is, in truth, a long, long way from the resolute Lord Falconer's commercial disaster zone on Bugsby Way, Greenwich. Not least in the fact that the Rainforest House's higher-than-expected visitor numbers (an above-capacity peak of 2,800 a day), have meant that Hole and his team at the 'designers and communicators' Furneaux Stewart are now looking at doing two more rainforest enclosures elsewhere in Europe.
Hole now heads up Furneaux Stewart's fourstrong architecture team, which is set to expand with a series of 'massive' projects and a restructuring to be announced in the new year.
The 35-strong west London-based 'messagedriven' company worked with Hole on a number of projects in the UK and abroad, mainly automotive exhibition buildings such as the Bentley pavilion at Volkswagen's extraordinary car 'brandland' in Wolfsburg - 'Autostadt'.
These collaborations paved the way for Furneaux Stewart to get Hole in-house. That way, it reasoned, it could offer clients the dreaded 'onestop shop' facility and cater to the client's needs concerning ideas, film, design, printed word or buildings. Sometimes, a la Cedric Price, Hole explains, a building solution is not even suggested. Imagination probably comes nearest as a comparison company.
Hole, a dynamic, friendly 39-year-old with a loud infectious laugh, was at TBV Consult when he designed the Rainforest House.He was able to draw on his experience of, and fascination with, botanic architecture from his days as a junior engineer on the design and construction of the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens. Except he decided to eschew its 'seriousness'; its rather English tradition of stuffy education-is-good-foryou, museum-ness.
'You approach the building, but then you go through this glass door and that's your universe, ' he says of Kew.'Because of that you have no ability to hype yourself. There's no anticipation.You go from a Northern European climate into desert - it's too abrupt.' Instead, in Hanover, Hole and his clients, VW again, opted for a more 'themed' attraction where visitors are asked to go on a 'journey' with a fictitious botanist who goes missing in the jungle. The botanist's great invention, a decoder, allows humans to speak to plants, a device which allows the translated narrative to guide visitors round the attraction.
This is much better than the kind of place where visitors are provided with a 'wand' that blurts in people's ears facts like 'Henry VIII slept here, ' he says.
Visitors to Rainforest House thus have a rather Indiana Jones-sounding 'mission'. They travel in an airship that drops them 7m onto the forest floor, enjoy a simulator ride, and, in short, interact.
Hole calls it a 'thematic conversion' and, however cheesy it sounds, this kind of storyboard attitude is why visitor centres in the US do so well and why, by contrast, the Dome has not, due in part to its hectoring, nannying, heavily political messaging.
The Rainforest House uses a three-layer ETFE air-cushion system to let the maximum daylight (as opposed to sunlight) into the single volume, which it does far more efficiently than glass.'Glass is rubbish', says Hole.'In terms of technology, glass still comes in very small pieces. They're bloody heavy, they crack, they're very rough, they collect dirt, and they only allow about 85 per cent light through the UV filter.'
So ETFE, with a 98 per cent rating, came in.Hole, with his engineering background, marvels at its bendability and its use as a temperature conditioner. In this there is a similarity with the Eden project and it is no surprise when Hole says he helped Tim Smit on the early versions of the scheme, which, he feels, will be a massive success.
He tells the story, however, of how in its initial designs, aimed at garnering Millennium Commission money, Eden resembled Grimshaw's Eurostar terminal transferred to the south-west coast.
After an engineering course at South-East London College, Hole trained at Greenwich where he will return to teach an architecture diploma course later this year. One of his tutors was John Lyall, who he now regards as a good friend. He graduated while still with TBV, where to get work he went down the competition route. 'It was not a good way to get work, ' he says. 'We were hitting seconds constantly, which first of all was really good, but after about the third time we thought 'Oh no, not again, we've become the bridesmaids.''' Nowadays at Furneaux Stewart, Hole is a firm believer of a truly multidisciplinary approach to designing buildings - 'you should have a poet or a musician on the design team' - and feels there is a blurring of the professions. So much so that he agrees with the notion that in the coming decades architecture as a pure discipline will die out - although it is in his company's interest to say so.As a board member of the little-known Themed Entertainment Association (along with RTKL and other architects he is trying to get on board) he is working to develop the industry and the 'synergies' between the various design disciplines involved.
But in the light of the Dome, which Furneaux Stewart was hoping to become involved with under Nomura before its dramatic withdrawal, and Sheffield's failed Pop Music Centre, Hole says there is a stigma attached to visitor attractions in the UK.
But there are projects that are working, he says, such as Wilkinson Eyre's Magma project.
What is clear from Hole's views and the kind of work which Furneaux Stewart is putting out is that the visitor attraction in the UK, with the right kind of 'messaging', 'story', attention to detail and 'holistic' building design, can still be a viable building type - Dome or no Dome.