Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners' Andrew Whalley had to prove himself to be able to work in the US. Having done so, he's discovered kindred spirits at work on his latest project, Missouri's Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Ideas and influences can keep coming around. As a student of architecture at Glasgow's Macintosh School, Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (NGP) director Andrew Whalley was struck by the Kibble Palace, a building that was later to inform his thinking about the Eden Project.
Kibble Palace, a glasshouse, was first used as a winter gardens, before becoming a botanic garden. Originally built at his home by engineer John Kibble, it was dismantled and then re-erected on the present site in 1873, with some reshaping. It is a lesson in light, flexible technology, and a 'from first principles' approach to a building.
After the 'party' of three years at the Macintosh, followed by a year out with Spence and Webster, Whalley worked three days a week to finance an AA diploma, as part of Ron Heron and Jan Kaplicky's unit.
He then joined the Grimshaw office and has been there ever since.
Now one of four NGP directors, with responsibility, broadly, for the US, arts and transportation buildings, you might think having to get qualifications would be a thing of the past. Not so. In order to lead projects in the US, you have to be qualified in the relevant state.
The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, as client, wanted NGP to take the lead across the board, to achieve vertical integration of the project team. And so started a two-month process of proving that Whalley's work was good enough for Missouri. He had to put together syllabuses and exam results for all periods of his education, including school exam results, to demonstrate his general education.
The buildings he chose to make his case with were the house he designed with his wife, Fiona Galbraith, his Paddington Station design and the Eden Project.
Whalley now has his seal (though day-today US practice is not to physically stamp and seal drawings).
Once accredited, NGP could set up its team for Missouri, including Arup and HOK. Most of the work up to detailed design stage was done by NGP and Arup in the UK, with construction documentation done in the US, supported by Arup's US operation.
Before Missouri, NGP's reputation for transportation buildings had led to invitations to be part of consortia, notably from HNTB, a large US engineering group.
The first pitch was for a replacement for the Bay Bridge in Ohio - after the original was destroyed by an earthquake - and another Ohio road bridge proposal is now being worked on. The practice aims to bring a heightened aesthetic agenda to the party, ranging from the setting down to the details of joints and connections.
Towards the end of 2000 the practice decided to more systematically explore the US. At the time, Vincent Chang was resident in the US, the NGP project architect overseeing the Plant Science Center in Missouri and responsible for developing the NGP presence. But the practice was aware of the need for a permanent base and started by taking space in New York. Chang is now there. Someone will have to go through the accreditation process for New York State too - but not Whalley this time.
As a way of gaining entry into local markets, NGP is looking at competitions.
Much public work is openly let, somewhat similarly to the use of the EU's Official Journal. An invitation went out to 20 practices from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for an Electronic Media and Performing Arts Center. Having reached a shortlist of four, Whalley took a presentation team to the US. He was a little unnerved to find all four teams were presenting together, in effect in open competition. The Center, at pre-schematic stage, is an intriguing looking proposal - a building merged into the slope of the site with the concert hall like a violin body. At $95 million (£65 million) it is a big project, with a completion date around 2005.
It is currently being run half in the UK, half in the US, but is soon to be all in New York.
Like the Kibble Palace, the Plant Science Center has been approached in a firstprinciples way, the first focus being on the community of scientists, using the atrium in particular to foster interaction and, Whalley hopes, the sharing of ideas.Another theme is the environment, a theme that runs through the practice's work. It met a like mind in the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an independent, not-for-profit research centre focused on applying new knowledge to benefit human nutrition and health and to improve the sustainability of agriculture worldwide.
Whalley has also sought to bring some urbanity to the Center, or at least some of the human scale of the better science parks to what is, location-wise, a roadside building. A porte cochere suggests a street and creates an axis for future development, though Whalley accepts that users will arrive from the car park at the rear. Even so, the client has tried to put the building on the St Louis map by making the atrium available for public events. If the whole set-up isn't ideal, Whalley finds a meeting of minds with the client.
More prosaic issues of working in the US have arisen from the technologies and traditions of US construction. Though the facades have been 'value-engineered' into something simpler than the original intent, finding cladding firms with a capacity for any sort of customisation was difficult. The obvious choice, Cupples - of Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank fame - no longer exists.
NGP eventually went to Josef Gartner, which has now set up locally. Similarly, getting steelwork good enough to expose is hard, and wet trades are expensive. It is a difficult environment for a practice interested in the integrity of how things fit together, and in marked contrast to the UK, where NGP has now set up its own industrial design unit within the practice for custom design of, for example, lighting or information systems.
Challenged by such national differences, Whalley retains his enthusiasm for the flow of new projects as he travels from prospect to prospect. His prize may be NGP's biggest collection of frequent-flyer air miles.