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GCHQ comes up trumps - but why does it ignore basic urban design?

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As one of Europe's largest single construction projects and Britain's largest PFI project to date, GCHQ (pp36-40) has a lot to prove. The fact that the building exists at all is, in itself, a triumph for the procurement process.Were it not for the long-term cost certainty afforded by PFI, it is inconceivable that a building project of this size would ever have been sanctioned at all. And while we might feel a pang of nostalgia for the Avengers-style working practices of the GCHQ of old, common sense tells us that the move to modern working practices is long overdue. Replacing 50 disparate buildings and an old-fashioned 'command'structure with a single bespoke open-plan office designed to encourage communication can only be a positive move. The project team has repaid the ministers' leap of faith by delivering the project on budget and on time, and to a standard which belies the myth that PFI will inevitably result in the erosion of quality; workmanship and finishes are uniformly high.

But a look at the aerial view begs the question of whether deliverability and efficiency have been prioritised over issues concerning its context. The memorable doughnut form, while affording clear benefits in terms of repetitive components, circulation, defensibility and so on, also gives the impression of an outsize flying saucer having landed on the outskirts of Cheltenham. The designers point out that by diminishing its apparent bulk from any given viewpoint the circular form mediates between GCHQ's giant proportions and the domestic scale of its locale.But setting out to disguise the size of a building such as this is as futile as asking an elephant to hold in its stomach.

And the fact that its appearance is more or less the same from every vantage point provides little in the way of orientation, and suggests a disregard for any changes in context around the building's edge.

Client and design team were in agreement that GCHQ should not be a signature building. This, after all, is not the public face of government but strictly back-ofhouse. But is that sufficient reason to ignore the basic obligations of urban design?

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