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Grimshaw: 'Demolition of The Ship would be a great loss to me'

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Nicholas Grimshaw talks to the AJ about proposals to demolish his award-winning former Western Morning News headquarters in Plymouth

How does it feel to be the designer of an award-winning building that is facing demolition?
‘It feels like a great loss to me – it would be a terrible shame to see that happen. In this case, it’s a building that I put a lot of time into. We got on particularly well with the client; it was an enthusiastically pursued project. They were moving out of the middle of Plymouth and they wanted to make the new building particularly noticeable. It’s unusual for an architect to have a brief to make a building as noticeable as possible.

When the building was completed, how long did you think its lifespan was?
‘The clients were so enthusiastic and it was a popular building – they very much gave the impression that they were part of the Plymouth community, that they spoke for the community, and that there was a feeling that the people of Plymouth owned the newspaper. I don’t think anyone anticipated the changes the newspaper industry has gone through since. When we were working on the building the clients said they wanted something like our Financial Times Printworks, which is now an internet switching centre.

The DCMS are considering the listing bid by the Twentieth Century Society. Are the current proposals to demolish ‘The Ship’ partly driven by a recognition it could gain listed status, hampering redevelopment?
‘The owners set out the steps they were planning to take in their demolition notice, and it seems to be quite a lengthy process - it’s not going to be an overnight job. If they do get permission to demolish, I can’t imagine that they would do so if there was any remote chance of another use being found.

All the papers are on the minister’s desk

We’re very hopeful on the listing. As I understand it, all the papers are on the minister’s desk. The critical point is whether it can be dealt with by the current government or whether the listing application could be caught in the interregnum. We need to get a decision in the next few days. If we don’t, I sense that things will take a couple of months.

How hard do you think the building’s current owners have tried to find a new use for ‘The Ship’?
‘I absolutely don’t know the answer to that. They took the presses out two years ago and we didn’t hear about it. Obviously that was all to do with the change of technology in printing. There’s no point in being nostalgic about that.

‘We hadn’t had any enquiries as to different uses until now – and we have been approached by people who might want to take the building over. There has been quite a lot of interest.’

The building’s owners claim the structure is only suitable for a business that combined printing and offices, and therefore is unviable. Do you agree?
‘It would make a very good prominent headquarters building for somebody – they could put their name on it and it would be seen from a long way away. It’s next to the main local hospital, so it could be modified for health or medical uses. It would work quite well as a sports, recreation and community centre.

‘It would be a very good location for a hotel and it could have a bar with great views, but one would have to be a bit ingenious with regard to putting in opening windows. It could also make a good university building or arts centre.’

Is there a wider issue here about the future of late 1980s and 1990s buildings?
‘As an architect, you build buildings as well as you possibly can and everyone should be of a mind that buildings can be used for other things after their original purpose – although some are easier than others to do. Even Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station has found a use as a chair museum.

Everyone should be of a mind that buildings can be used for other things

That said, a lot of it does depend on the location and the region. I’d say that practically all buildings should be kept if they can be. It’s so much better to reuse an existing building, simply because of resources.’

Grimshaw Western News HQ

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