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Wings of change

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building study

Can Slough Estates rise to the challenge of incorporating part of Britain's aviation heritage at the heart of its new Farnborough Business Park?

In 1999, property developer Slough Estates purchased the 73ha Royal Aircraft Establishment base at Farnborough, Hampshire, from the Ministry of Defence, for redevelopment as Farnborough Business Park. The first two speculative offices, designed respectively by Allies and Morrison and Foster and Partners, are now nearing completion at the southwest end of the park. When a tenant moves into Allies and Morrison's 1 Meadow Gate Avenue, staff will have a magnificent view over the park's private airfield, home to the Farnborough Air Show and now leased to TAG Aviation (AJ 14.6.01).

The building, clad in glass and aluminium, shares 'the aesthetic of the aircraft', says Robert Maxwell, director in charge at Allies and Morrison. But how many employees at 1 Meadow Gate Avenue will realise that components of the Boeing 737s that they see touching down on the runway were developed and tested on the site where they are now working - 'the cradle of aviation', as it was affectionately dubbed? It cannot have escaped the attention of Lord Foster, a trained pilot, that 25 Templer Avenue, the office his practice has designed, occupies hallowed aviation ground.

The majority of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) buildings have already been demolished to make way for the new development - only a few remain at the north end of the site, close to the town of Farnborough, in area H of the business park. This surviving group of buildings, four of which are listed, represents the historic core of the RAE base and is the subject of a development-brief area proposal, commissioned by Slough Estates from Julian Harrap Architects - presently out for public consultation with Rushmoor Borough Council.

Slough Estates, sole owner of the park, has involved an impressive list of architects in the development: as well as Allies and Morrison and Foster and Partners, Michael Aukett and Nicholas Hare are on board. John Danks, principal manager of Farnborough Business Park, has worked with these architects and masterplanner Bruce Gilbreth Architects to establish a set of design guidelines for the new offices to ensure they offer the 'high-quality headquarter-style buildings' promised in sales literature for the park.

Danks sees Stockley Park as a benchmark of what a business park should be, but is pragmatic about the value of architectural distinction: 'We consider it important but we are commercial developers. It's essential that our customers want the space and we're not purely driven by architectural awards.'

It is going to require a leap of imagination for Slough Estates to see how the historic core of the park can fit in with this commercial vision - and to recognise that all the buildings in area H, not just those that are listed, will increase in value as the park evolves. A recent report by SAVE Britain's Heritage observes that several of the unlisted buildings 'are eminently capable of reuse, which would not conflict with Slough Estates' objective of providing high-quality office space'. Retention of a solid core of historic buildings will give the listed buildings an evocative context, as opposed to preserving them in meaningless isolation.

Concern for the fate of the listed buildings, as well as the memorabilia rescued from the demolished RAE buildings, is being spearheaded by the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST), established in 1993 when it became apparent that the MoD was planning to sell the airbase. FAST's chief aim is to 'safeguard the priceless aeronautical heritage of Farnborough for the nation'. The listing of four of the buildings in area H was one of FAST's first achievements.They are known, in arcane RAE nomenclature, as Q121, R133, R51 and Q65.

The Grade II*-listed Q121 houses the 7.3m wind tunnel, built in 1934 and driven by a 9.1m diameter mahogany propeller occupying one end of a cathedral-like concrete chamber. Concrete blades 12.2m high steer the wind-flow from the main nave of the chamber back through side aisles to the 7.3m diameter mouth of the wind tunnel. Fullsized aircraft such as Spitfires were tested on a sophisticated balance mechanism in the smooth jet of air produced by the propeller.

Alternatively, a massive lift above the wind tunnel would lower scale models, suspended from a carriage, between the tunnel mouth and the propeller. The wind tunnel is still in working order and can generate wind speeds of up to 115mph. It is an awe-inspiring structure, with extraordinary visual power.

The Grade II-listed R133 opened in 1942 and contains the transonic wind tunnel built for specific research into the unpredictable effects of flight at sound-barrier speeds.

Aerodynamic models were subjected to winds of up to 1,000mph in the 2.4 x 1.8m testing chamber housed within the outer steel 'flask', 42m long and 11m wide - an object considerably larger than the 28m blue whale suspended from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum. The transonic wind tunnel was used to test Concorde, the Harrier and the Tornado.

The other two listed buildings - R51 and Q65 - are Grade II listed because they contain the upper and lower parts of a former airship hangar designed in 1910. If reassembled, the airship hangar would have an iconic appeal and enormous flagship potential for its new owner. Harrap's enthusiasm for its reassembly is infectious. 'The functionality of the hangar is one of its great assets. It can be used for corporate entertaining. As a venue it seems a staggering opportunity. It has a wonderful presence which will landmark the whole site, ' he says. Danks recognises that it could 'be quite an experience - it's 21m tall and quite imposing'. Masterplanner Bruce Gilbreth is also a convert. 'Who else has got something like that?' he asks.

All the material rescued from the bulldozers by members of FAST is currently stored in R52, a substantial brick building dating from 1916. And it is inside R52 that the human dimension of Farnborough's conservation issue is most apparent. In Harrap's words, 'FAST have this vast resource.

They are the memory of what went on on the site. It is vitally important that the memory is imparted to a new generation.'

Intricate components and research models are laid out on tables for inspection, maps and photographs line the walls, archival film tins are stacked in piles, filing cabinets await labelling. Outside, the skips fill up with irreplaceable relics of aircraft history, for which storage space cannot be found.

The situation has become critical: in January, FAST must vacate R52 and move into G1, the 1907 Balloon School, which Slough Estates has offered for a peppercorn rent. But the Grade II-listed G1 is much smaller that R52; and it is remote from the historic core of the site and has no bulk storage space. It will provide valuable office space for FAST but, because of its proximity to the airfield public safety zone, it can never have major public access.

No one underestimates the problem at Farnborough.Whether part of area H could be developed as a visitor attraction is debatable: the area is chock-a-block with rival attractions - Legoland, Windsor Safari Park, National Trust properties. Harrap believes a more pragmatic approach is needed. 'We have to see it for what it is - very educational, very science-based, part of a wider network, relating to the Science Museum and other aeronautical special places like Hendon and Duxford.'

FAST founder-member and designer Laurence Peskett believes there is sufficient interest to justify the establishment of some form of heritage centre. 'There is a passionate interest in aviation and aviation technology. Farnborough was at the heart of aeronautical research when British aircraft design was of world importance, but because of the secret nature of the work, its contribution to 20th-century history is largely unknown.'

Area H is also the area earmarked for ancillary facilities which would serve both the business park and town.Gilbreth sees it as 'a very important part of the future of this development. I think that we're going to be able to come up with a character for this area of the site which will be more pedestrian-like and may appeal to different users on the site.'

But urban accessibility and 24-hour security zones tend to be mutually exclusive: it is going to take flexibility on the part of Slough Estates and determination on the part of Rushmoor Borough Council to arrive at a solution.

Robert Maxwell believes that the old buildings 'could easily be incorporated into the business park', and that people appreciate a varied environment. He cites Brindleyplace, Birmingham, as an example - a commercial quarter transformed by the presence of the refurbished Ikon Gallery, once a Victorian school, and the nearby canalside. 'Those are the parts of the city fabric that make offices work, ' he says.

Neither Danks nor FAST members would agree that history and commerce can be reconciled 'easily'. 'We've never doubted the enormity of the task, ' says Peskett. Yet with imagination, goodwill and vision, it should be possible for Slough Estates to enhance the prospects of the business park and, at the same time, safeguard a unique part of Britain's contribution to aviation history.

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