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The future is now

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Future Systems has long had a reputation for pushing design into unexpected directions. An exhibition at the ICA shows the practice's latest thinking - and the built work that has resulted from it


ARCHITECT Future Systems



Building Contractors When Future Systems - the partnership of Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete - staged its last exhibition in London, seven years ago, the significance of the work was still inspirational and exemplary rather than practical. Its forthcoming exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, opening on April 1, includes a number of built (or soon-to-be-built) schemes, while underlining the close continuum between built and unbuilt, practice and research, which is a vital ingredient in the partnership's architecture.

Two of their early projects - the 'Blob', originally unveiled as an unsuccessful entry for the 1985 Grand Buildings competition, and the 1990 Green Building - were dismissed as curiosities. In those days 'visionary' was a term of abuse. Both projects are included in the ICA show, perhaps to remind us of what we missed. But the thrust of the exhibition is towards recent and ongoing work, reflecting an increasing recognition of the practicality of Future Systems' approach.

An interest in the city is certainly nothing new for the practice, which produced one of the best entries for John Gummer's ill-fated Inhabited Bridge competition and has since completed a footbridge at Canary Wharf, a rare civilian application of the prefab pontoon system favoured by military engineers. (One feature of the structural system is that the bridge places no loading on the dock quays. ) Kaplicky and Levete's own house in W8 suggests a willingness to co-exist with historic urban fabric, in this case a plain early-Victorian terraced house. The interior remodelling reflects their desire to live in an uncluttered, if colourful, modern space - though there is room to display Kaplicky's vast collection of aircraft models - while accepting the limitations of existing structure and services.

Future Systems is currently working on a house in a very different environment. The scheme in Druidstone Haven, Pembrokeshire, is a 'glass eye over the ocean', set in a National Park, where there is a broad presumption against new building and a predilection for 'keeping in keeping'. The existence of an undistinguished house on the site established the principle of another dwelling there, while the lightweight, environment-friendly proposals attracted planners. Due for completion in May, the house is dug into the land, making it invisible from the road. It is of timber construction, with an 80mm earth covering as a roof, with bathrooms and kitchen in pods in the free-form interior. The house is anything but demonstrative in appearance, but is significant as an exemplar for new housing in the countryside.

The Wild at Heart flower shop on Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, accepts its context. The facade expresses what is happening within but is polite. Inside, the display area is sculptural and gallery-like, deliberately 'natural' in its curves while allowing the flowers to dominate.

The proposal for a decidedly organic-looking tower on the site of Battersea Power Station is proof that Future Systems' radical outlook is untarnished. Ten years ago, it designed the spire for the tower.


CLIENT Harper Trust

ARCHITECT Future Systems


M&E ENGINEER Ove Arup and Partners


MODEL Unit 22 ICA's Metropolis exhibition - a 480m landmark tower to be built in Hyde Park.

The new tower is not so much streamlined as phallic - a symbol of defiance to the new heritage lobby which killed Norman Foster's Millennium Tower? (Future Systems, it should be recalled, recoiled with horror at the idea of converting Bankside Power Station for the new Tate MOMA and produced its own plans for redevelopment. ) Yet Future Systems succeeded in winning over Sir Denys Lasdun - no pushover - to its proposed extension to the latter's Grade II*-listed Hallfield School. The project looks set to remain unbuilt, as is another for a new private school at Bedford, but there is a clear interest in 'social' architecture and a concern for economy which makes Future Systems potentially a major player in the field. This aspect of its work looks back to the early aspirations of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, both of whom - Rogers in particular - are allies.

In an introduction to the ICA exhibition catalogue, Martin Pawley describes Future Systems' buildings as 'instruments, not monuments'.

Although the technology-rooted imagery of its earlier work has become more muted, with an increasing interest in the images and forms of nature, the emphasis on practicality, the necessity that buildings work as well as look good, remains. In a world threatened with ecological disaster, the irrelevance of monuments is ever more clear. By combining low-cost, low-energy, adaptable programmes with elegant and memorable form, Future Systems is laying down an agenda for modern architecture in the twenty-first century.


CLIENT Jan Kaplicky & Amanda Levete

ARCHITECT Future Systems

MAIN CONTRACTOR CGN Building Contractors


The fruit of a progressive approach to commissioning by this quintessentially traditional institution, the Media Centre sits confidently above the terraces, an emblem of Future Systems' determination to 'tell it how it is'. The centre is a highly practical and efficient structure designed for intensive use by a very demanding body of users - the press and broadcasters.

Future Systems won an invited competition in 1995. Anticipated opposition from local residents and from statutory bodies did not materialise, though the building is forthright and highly prominent. The seamless structure is of aluminium, prefabricated in Holland and Cornwall on a monocoque system, without cladding, using boat-building techniques, and assembled on site on a concrete base. It is claimed to be the world's first all-aluminium building, a carefully crafted object which uses quite ordinary raw materials.

The 'tear-drop' shape of the centre evolved through intensive CAD study in conjunction with structural engineer Ove Arup & Partners, and is intended to be both efficient and attractive. Up to 120 writers and commentators can be accommodated. A 40m glazed facade to the pitch provides uninterrupted views of the game.

In view of the high amounts of heat generated by equipment, air-conditioning was necessary throughout. A product, rather than a conventional piece of architecture, the centre is designed for recycling, should its use cease. It dramatically realises the implications of a number of unbuilt Future Systems projects of the 1970s and 80s.


There are several sorts of ideas Jan Kaplicky finds appealing in transferring technology from boats and planes to buildings, as Future Systems has done for the Lord's Media Centre, writes Barrie Evans . There is a step out of the mud age to a more tightly engineered technology. There is the control of construction that prefabrication brings. There is the close integration of people, and of designing and building, from working with such specialists. And there are the new sorts of spaces and finishes characteristic of these other technologies. At Lord's the pod is a 40 x 20m column-free curved space, where the mezzanine floor is hung from the roof. Above two concrete stair and lift towers sits the all-aluminium structure, almost all the prefabrication and site construction undertaken by boat-builders.

This smooth pod is an expression of structural integrity, not surface styling; a semi-monocoque of ribs and structural skin, not a clad frame. (Balloons or eggs are pure monocoques. ) Imagine parallel structural I-sections with the top flanges of adjacent sections widened until they join; that is the structural picture. Actual construction is different - the structure's ribs are T-sections welded to a continuous skin.

Ribs and skin are all of aluminium to provide uniformity of structural properties. At 6mm (12mm in a few areas) the outer skin can readily be welded and is stiff enough to create a smooth building surface without oil-canning (the undulations characteristic of some thin-skin metal panels).

Boat-builder Pendennis, which won the principal contract, uses this approach in building large cruisers. The Media Centre is its first building, yet it took less convincing that this was a practicable way to build buildings than some players in the construction industry.

The pod shell was completely fabricated in the factory, though only stitched along 3m slices, so that it could be transported to site slice by slice. The heaviest slice is 6.5T, most are around 4T. The cricketing rule of no building behind the bowler's arm means that the smooth flow from factory to site will be disrupted by the cricket season.

It is a compliment to the computer-based and craft-based precision of the boat-building industry that Pendennis subcontracted parts of a structure for which fit of components is so important.

On site, the central base slice was put in first and assembly is proceeding out from there towards the ends. As the skin is part of the structure, the whole pod has to be propped on scaffold until the skin is complete. Joints in the skin are made by welding from the inside. Slices have already been painted externally in the factory except for a 100mm-wide strip at the joints. Joints will be finished with putty and spray-painted beneath a movable tent. On the sample panel, which has been finished in this way, the joint is undetectable beneath the paint.

Internally, ribs are to be protected by 80mm (onehour) fire protection. There is also 120mm of thermal insulation.

Services openings in the skin will be flush grilles. For the main air handling grilles, which are on the top surface of the pod, these cover tanked voids which drain internally. Air is exchanged with the building though further grilles in the sides of th voids, thus providing weather protection to these air inlets/outlets while maintaining the smooth line of the outer skin. The other type of opening in the skin is a gutter near the equator of the pod (see detail), again draining internally through the structure and down the towers.

The towers also accommodate the bulky TV and radio cabling that is installed anew for each match covered. It is run out to the reporters and cameras in large floor trenches.

A significant sense of the curved form will remain internally, though there are a flat raised floor and suspended ceiling. Partitions will be aluminiumframed MDF, as for boats. Surface finishes throughout will be soft, as for boats or cars, the whole in similar shades of powder blue.

Modern Art Glass is providing the main glazed wall. This will be hung from the top, supported at the mezzanine and will fit in a sliding bearing at its foot.

This intermittently and seasonally used building will have laminated single glazing; the outer 6mm sheet will be heat-strengthened, the inner 12mm toughened sheet will also accommodates the fixings. Its framing is to be of simple bent stainless steel, not castings.

Set behind the bowler's arm, the glass wall faces west, and is angled downward to prevent reflections. There will also be a desk-high fritted band at each floor level to reduce distraction to players of people moving in the building. For reporters, some problems of low sun are inevitable (like having to fly a plane into the sunset). There will be blinds on inclined cables. Simulation has dealt with heat build-up but there may need to be some experimentation on site with solar films.

So despite first appearances, this is not an outside-in building, but an unusual skin. The whole idea of the sort of form that semi-monocoque construction can create is transferred to a building. To Kaplicky it is a transfer with a lot of future potential.

CLIENT Marylebone Cricket Club

ARCHITECT Future Systems


M&E ENGINEER Buro Happold

FACADE ENGINEER Billings Design Associates

PROJECT MANAGEMENT Gardiner and Theobald Project Management

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davies Langdon & Everest

PLANNING SUPERVISION Gardiner and Theobald Planning Supervision

MODEL Unit 22

PHASE ONE MANAGEMENT CONTRACTOR (support structure) Heery Internat ional concrete structure Geoffrey Osbourne, steel staircase Littlehampton Welding

PHASE TWO CONTRACTORS Main contractor (superstructure) Pendennis Shipyard, mechanical engineer P&D Heating, electrical engineer Carey Electricals, glazed facades MAG, lifts Stannah Lifts


Models by Unit 22 Work on the Earth Centre began in 1995, the Millennium Commission granting £50 million of the £110 million cost. The centre is designed to present a changing display of environmental issues from around the world and to be a focus for green initiatives. Other buildings on the site are being designed by Will Alsop and Feilden Clegg.

The design of the 10,000 m2 Ark Building - the main exhibition space - is clearly reminiscent of earlier Future Systems projects, notably the Paris library and the 1990 Acropolis Museum. The organic forms, developed with Ove Arup & Partners, take their cue from nature rather than machine. Rather than seeking new shapes, Future Systems has concentrated on developing the ecofriendly technology of the building, a practical embodiment of the ideals behind the centre. The vast 'fly's eye' roof, formed on tubular steel frames, is designed to provide steady natural light for exhibits by means of aluminium scoops which cut out south light and filter north light into the interior. A battery of photo-voltaic cells provide naturally generated power. Opening vents allow fresh air to circulate: there is no air-conditioning.

The Ark building is designed to demonstrate that 'green' energy works. Inside, it will contain a staggered stack of floors with striking vistas through the interior. Colour is used to strong effect on the roof - reflecting a growing element in Future Systems' work. Above all, the building is intended to sit comfortably in the landscape, making a clear statement about its function.

CLIENT The Earth Centre

ARCHITECT Future Systems


M&E ENGINEER Ove Arup and Partners


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