planes, trains and media centres – part 2

01_lords_title_2The construction of the Lord’s Cricket Ground Media Centre, planned by Future Systems, in 1998 is widely regarded as a major breakthrough in modern architecture, being the first building entirely constructed according to principles of ship building technologies.

After tracing its ideological background throughout Future Systems history in part 1 of this article, i want to investigate here, whether the pursuit of this strong conceptual idea has proven successful. Based on the assumption, that every coherent set of technologies works best in its own environment, I will examine, up to which extent ship building techniques could be incorporated into the construction process of the Lord’s Media Centre, without losing the significant advantages, they are praised for.

Commissioned on the occasion of the then forthcoming Cricket World Cup 1999, the new Lord’s Media Centre was intended to provide a better accommodation for press and TV commentators, replacing the existing and by then inadequate media facilities, that could only house 90 journalists and were dispatched around the cricket ground. The new Media Centre accommodates 250 journalists and photographers and also comprises a 50 seat restaurant with a bar and two hospitality areas.

fig_03_ms_sketchA winning competition entry in 1995, the Lord’s Media Centre was, as the first sketches (Future Systems, 2001: 16) indicate, conceived as a “giant camera lens” overlooking the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. It was constructed as a semi-monocoque aluminium structure, resting on two columns of reinforced concrete, approximately 14 metres above ground. Whereas the columns were cast on site, the aluminium pod itself was entirely fabricated in a boatyard in Cornwall, pre-assembled there to for checking, then dissipated again into its 32 parts and transported to site by lorry, where it was bolted and welded together. After filling the weld lines, the exterior surface was sanded down and spray painted to provide a smooth seamless finish. The entire interior claddings as well as finishing and electrical, mechanical and ventilation fittings and devices were added after completion of the exterior skin.

The object’s dimensions are roughly 40m x 20m x 21m (without the concrete columns), comprising a floor area of approximately 600 m2. The shell structure’s overall weight is 90 tons, consisting of 32 elements, 20m x 3.6m in size and 3 to 6 tons in weight. The shell is constructed of aluminium 5038 grade sheets with a thickness of 6 to 12 mm.

Shipbuilding Techniques And Its Alternatives. As the structure’s shape exhibits a three-dimensional complexity, which is common to most of their projects, Future Systems decision to involve a shipyard, rather than a conventional construction company for competent expertise seems obvious. Considering Future Systems’ claim, that the Media Centre’s complex structure could not be realised in the desired quality with traditional building methods, we should briefly investigate, whether other alternatives besides the construction of a aluminium monocoque could have yielded an equally satisfying result, as this seems to never have been considered by Future Systems.

fig_05_ibmLooking at precedents for the construction of non-classical (i.e. non-rectangular) spaces in modern architecture, that could serve as models for the Media Centre, interestingly enough, a project by Eero Saarinen, to whose work Future Systems often refers to (Field, 1999:22), bears the most striking resemblance. His 1964 IBM Corporation Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair, also featured the “Ovoid Theatre”, a huge ellipsoid shaped dome theatre capable of housing an audience of 500 people. It was elevated above the pavilion’s roof structure resting on tree-like supporting elements. The theatre itself was constructed conventionally using a set of interlocking elliptically bended structural frames, that were clad with curved panels, which could, because the theatre’s shape showed a certain geometrical regularity, be produced easily. As the exterior surface was entirely covered with the letters of the client’s logo, a smooth surface finish was not required. For the conception of the IBM Pavilion Saarinen was closely collaborating with Charles Eames, another architect much admired by Kaplicky (ibid.:32).

Charles Eames also pioneered the successful usage of plywood to generate large-scale three-dimensionally shaped smooth surfaces back in the 1940s. Although the basic techniques to form plywood had already been discovered around 1850, it was only in 1941 that Charles and Ray Eames developed a machine that allowed a quick and cheap production of plywood objects, that could be molded into any desired three-dimensional shape. In the beginning restraining itself to furniture production, the industry’s focus soon shifted to the construction of large scale plywood objects, mainly due to an extensive research agenda set up by the military during World War Two, when plywood was intended to replace then unobtainable metals. In 1942 the production range included leg splints, pilot seats, tail sections and other molded plywood aircraft parts.

fig_06_plywoodResearch finally lead in 1943 to the design of an experimental lightweight glider, called “Flying Flatcar”, a cargo aircraft designed to hold two Jeeps. It consisted of compound-curved plywood units up to a size of 400 on 250 cm, that were seamlessly fixed onto a wooden construction. Molds for forming the required plywood sheets were developed using a technique devised for smaller plywood shapes. The maximum size of the single sheets was limited by the high amount of electricity that was needed to produce enough heat for curing the length of the wood. The use of lightweight molded plywood for aircraft was later replaced by the use of aluminium as the predominant material for aircraft construction. The use in large-scale aircraft production nevertheless demonstrates the capability of plywood to be formed into complex three-dimensional forms while even meeting the high quality standards of aircraft industry. Because of its properties, the use of molded plywood surfaces now gets more widespread as a by comparison cheap method to realize organic shapes in building construction.

Although having to be mounted onto a conventional frame construction, compound plywood sheets obviously represent, at least as far as its material properties are concerned, a considerable alternative to the use of an aluminium monocoque, and would maybe have deserved a more thorough investigation. The fact that this was not done, might be more related to what one might call the “ideological properties” of wooden constructions. Wood, within its long cultural tradition always associated with a human and more natural architectural approach, does not fit into modernist conceptions. The first bent plywood furniture pieces were conceived to represent “the expressive nature of human imagination.” because “Steel is […] not suitable from a human point of view.” as Alvar Aalto put it in 1931 (Quantrill, 1983). challenging the machine aesthetics of modernism.

The Transfer of Ship Building Technology. The processes of planning and constructing large vessels differ largely from the processes that can be found in conventional building industry. With the replacement of wood as the predominant material of construction, as soon as iron, and later steel became common practice in shipbuilding, the vessels’ construction methods and their structures underwent significant changes. Formerly ships consisted of a wooden frame, deck beams and longitudinal joints that were clad with a wooden hull. This separation of structural elements and external surface was finally abandoned with the introduction of electrical welding.

fig_07_structural_detailUnlike a conventional structural system where the beams alone guarantee the structural integrity of the object, the metal plates constituting the skin contribute to the overall strength of the building, as, after being welded to the metal ribs, they replace the top flanges of any one beam, leading to a reduction in both, weight and cost. As structure and hull work together, conventional construction becomes impossible.

Because contracting a shipyard to carry out building action had been unprecedented, until finally the Pendennis Shipyard in Cornwall was commissioned to do the Media Centre’s construction work, all practices involved encountered new difficulties. At first, to comply with all applicable building codes, alterations had to be made to the initial structural proposals, that were submitted by the shipyard, as vessel construction, in contrast, is controlled according to Lloyds Register shipping. As it turned out, the structure had to be additionally reinforced to comply with building regulations, adding more material to a formerly optimised structural system.

Prefabrication And Transportation. Shipbuilding is highly mechanized. During the planning process huge vessels are subdivided into several smaller entities, that are prefabricated separately to be assembled later on a slipway. To guarantee a seamless integration of the different entities, all parts are produced computer numerically controlled. The maximum size and, more important, the maximum weight of every single entity that will later on form the vessel, depends on the capacity of the construction shed it is assembled in. The capacity and size of the assembly facilities influence the overall scale of the vessels that can be built in the shipyard, because it is not cost effective to divide huge vessels into too many small parts. The bigger, and consequently fewer, the single parts can become the more efficiently a shipyard can operate. Average assembly facilities can have a hoisting capacity of about 240 tons.

fig_10_real_elementThe maximum size of the parts that were designed to later form the Media Centre on the other hand were depending on other parameters. As they had, unlike real naval structures, to be transported from the shipyard in Cornwall to a site in Central London, size and weight had to be adjusted to enable transportation on a lorry. Due to the application of transport regulations, each of the 26 constituent parts was averagely only about 3.5 tons in weight, an almost insignificant number compared to an average assembly facility’s maximum capacity. Considering the overall mass of the Media Centre’s superstructure of 90 tons, under normal circumstances assembly pieces twice as large as the entire shell itself could be prefabricated on an average assembly facility.

This suggests, that shipyards of average size cannot operate cost efficiently when prefabricating parts, that are designed for road transportation, due to the inadequacy of size. Dividing a hull according to road transportation requirements consequently leads to a increase in cost and a decrease in efficiency. Additionally a considerable increase in the number of prefabricated parts means a significantly longer duration of both, of the production period in the shipyard itself and of the assembly work later on site. To make full use of prefabrication methods without limiting efficiency requires the solution of the problem of transportation first.

fig_13_bf_dispIn 1959 R. Buckminster Fuller encountered a similar logistic problem when working on his geodesic lightweight constructions. Those domes, conceived as mobile prefabricated shelter units for the military, and huge enough to house several cargo helicopters, had to be assembled completely on the ground to gain their stability, before they could be dispatched to remote locations. The problem was solved by using helicopters to move the entire structure, as the structure’s low weight implied easy aerial transportation.

Although normally assembled entities are just lifted onto the adjacent slipway, were they are welded together to form the vessel, also ship building industry itself sometimes faces the problem of long distance transportation. After subdividing the vessel into its prefabrication units, it is a usual procedure for contractors to outsource different parts of the production to other shipyards, either because of the need to meet a close deadline or simply a lack of capacity. Different parts of the same ship can be produced in shipyards all over the world according to a set of precise CAD drawings supplied by the initial contractor. But due to their natural proximity to water, prefabricated parts, previously assembled in remote shipyards, are transported back by huge barges, where almost no size or load restrictions apply.

fig_15_foa_assAnother innavative project of that time, the Yokohama International Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects also made use of construction techniques closely related to ship building industry, and similar to those used for the realisation of the Media Centre. Starting off with “a folding floor structure [… that] also forms the mechanism to transfer stress” (FOA, 2001:19) and consequently needed no beams or columns, constant technical development during the planning process eventually lead to a construction, where complexly folded steel plates, resting on two lines of box girders, would form self supporting skins throughout the building. The whole terminal was planned as one single overall structure, in which no expansion joints would be used, but which would be assembled in site mainly by welding or riveting together prefabricated steel units. As the terminal lies next to the waterfront, pre-assembled parts could be produced at a large scale and be delivered by means of sea transportation. This enabled a short and cost effective construction process, as elements of adequate size could be prefabricated.

Assembly. Following the normal ship construction procedure, after prefabrication the single parts of the vessel are electronically welded together directly on the slipway, from which the ship will be launched directly into the sea later at a point near to completion. Before being finally connected, every part is temporarily stitch-welded to the already existing adjacent parts of the structure to fix it in its position and to check for tight fitting, as maximum construction tolerances in shipbuilding are extremely low. This is done by welding aluminium cross-bracings on the elements. If they can be fitted together seamlessly the final welding process begins. If refinement should be required, parts can be easily brought back to the assembly facilities.

fig_11_ms_assembledIn case of the Media Centre, while still in the shipyard the upper and the lower halfs of the shell were assembled to two semi-spherical hulls by stitch-welding to check for a seamless integration of every single part into the whole structure. To enable their transportation to the actual construction site, they had to be disassembled afterwards, only to undergo the same mounting procedure again, this time after being elevated 14 metres above ground. Conducting construction work high above ground, especially when assembling a complex shape has a lot of obvious drawbacks. During construction in a ship yard one tries to avoid such hindrances by making the pre-assembled parts as large as possible in order to have most of the construction work done on ground level. Additionally prefabricated elements can be easily rotated to provide convenient working access.

The division of the Media Centre’s aluminium semi-monocoque shell into transportable parts in consequence lead to the introduction of two additional, repetitive procedures, the disassembling and reassembling the entire shell into the construction process. It also necessitated the final assembling works to be carried out under more difficult circumstances.

Interior and Fittings. Having most of the work completed rather in the prefabrication facilities than on the slipway, is essential for the entire ship construction process. Consequently as many electrical, mechanical and ventilation fittings, ducts and devices, as well as prefabricated sanitary units are integrated into the pre-assembled elements before they are transferred to be finally welded together. In some cases this even comprises interior finishing and furniture. In the Media Centre mechanical and electrical components were not integrated during prefabrication, presumably because the size of the prefabricated elements proved to small for this to be done efficiently.

fig_16_ms_assNormal vessels show their curvaceous shape on the outside but not necessarily on the inside. In big vessels conventional straight interior panelling prevails, as space is not an issue. In small yachts interior finishing is done in the controlled environment of the shipyard were workers and materials are at hand. As Future Systems wanted the Media Centre “[…] to be considered a spatial achievement too” (Field, 1999: 93), plywood panels, which later received a car paint finish, had to be tailored to the complex interior shape of the shell. As no two elements had exactly the same shape, exact measurements for all panels had first to be taken in situ before being individually produced in a remote workshop, brought back and being mounted.

Standardisation. The Lord’s Media Centre is, with its almost iconographic appearance, like almost all of Future Systems projects and buildings a one-off. It is unique in its design and shape, realised in an unconventional and highly demanding way by introducing experimental technologies, that had formerly never been used in building industries.

Future Systems frequently stressed the importance of re-applying the knowledge gained in such experiments to inform more conventional design and construction processes. (Wessely, 2001: 1447). Considering experimentation with prototypes as an integral part of architecture, Future Systems claim that a fusion of the advanced shipbuilding prefabrication technologies and the traditional building industry would lead to the realisation of affordable large scale housing projects that show an “aesthetically rich and spiritually uplifting form of architecture.”(Field, 1999: 21).

In fact it is mainly the shipbuilding industry’s ability to effectively construct highly individual shapes with a high precision, that suggests the application of its techniques to realise artefacts like the Lord’s Media Centre. As almost every vessel has its unique requirements due to its intended use and singular specifications, shipyards on the whole only deal with the production of one-offs. This is not only true for comparably small yachts, but also for big cargo vessels. Further on, since almost the entire steel cutting is done by CNC machines, the importance of element standardisation decreases, as the production of metal sheets of similar shape no longer reduces manufacturing time or costs. Although very advanced in prefabrication technologies, the standardisation is not one of the major issues in ship building.

Analysing the projects that Future Systems developed and published after 1995, it becomes evident, that the number of buildings featuring a semi-monocoque aluminium roof, has increased significantly since the Lord’s Media Centre has been realized. More interestingly, most of them are highly individual, detached single family houses, or interior installations.

fig_19_fs_npIn a 1997 case study, the Josef K House project, the building is designed with a single semi-monocoque lightweight aluminium roofing that allows curvaceous forms and exterior spray paint finish. The 1997 Mr B House is designed “as a simple blockwork structure topped with a semi-monocoque aluminium roof. This roof would be hard wearing and provide an organic and inspiring volume for the space inside.” (Field, 1999: 158) as Kaplicky states thus again reconfirming his more aesthetical than structural approach. The aluminium structure that was designed and realised for the Comme des garcon flagship store in New York was constructed by the Pendennis Shipyard in Cornwall, shipped to the United States and there re-assembled. The artefact’s conception and production followed, on an even smaller scale, precisely the Lord’s Media Centre’s manufacturing processes. Although definitely showing apprenticeship, advanced working skills and craft, again no gain of knowledge for the broader issue of standardisation can be induced.

fig_20_fs_cdgAll this indicates that although the direct application of monocoque metal structures has become a reoccurring theme within their work, Future Systems have not succeeded in establishing a conceptual transgression from the design of one-off building structures to a more systematic exploration of the possibilities of industrialisation, mass production or standardisation. Further on, the facts that only small shipyards, which use accordingly smaller prefabrication units, can produce road transportable elements cost efficiently, and that ship building itself is specialized in manufacturing custom-made unique objects, seem to generally contradict the idea of standardisation and mass production.

So, to sum up, a close examination of the Media Centre’s actual construction procedure reveals that certain integral processes of vessel construction are difficult to transfer into architecture without partially losing the advantages they previously seemed to offer. The necessity of moving the process of final assembly out of the shipyard onto the building site, which literally means relocating shipbuilding techniques into a different environment, turns out to be most problematic as it triggers a number of interdependent disadvantages that gradually dissolve existing advantages.

The construction of the Yokohama Terminal demonstrates, that the introduction of shipbuilding techniques, when carried out on a larger scale regarding essential parameters and when implied more by technical than by ideological necessity, can lead to promising results. The realisation of the Lord’s Media Centre might indicate that small scale projects, could turn into a conceptual tour de force, merely resulting in a memorable artefact without a convincing constructional history.

It seems evident, the incorporation of ship building technologies, its materials and production techniques, allows the creation of non-linear curvaceous shapes in qualities, generally impossible to achieve with conventional building methods. Other questions however, like those of standardisation and industrialized mass production techniques have not even been properly addressed yet, and are far from being solved. It seems, the issue of technology transfer from ship building to architecture would need more systematic and rigorous technical investigation, rather than ideological trimming in order to overcome its initial shortcomings, which is something that Future Systems were not able to pursue anymore. Let us hope that contemporary architecture practice takes it up from there.


Field, Marcus. Future Systems. London:Phaidon Press Ltd., 1999. ISBN 0-7148-3381-4.

Foreign Office Architects. “FOA Yokohama International Port Terminal” . Verb Processing. Barcelona: Actar, 2001. ISBN 84-95273-55-1

Quantrill, Malcom. Alvar Aalto. A Critical Study. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983. ISBN 0-436-39400-6.

Van der Giessen – de Noord N.V. (Ed.). Iron Men And Steel Ships. 125 Years Remarkable Shipbuilders. Krimpen aan den Ijssel: van der Giessen – de Noord, 1995.

Wessely Heidi. “An Interview with Jan Kaplicky” in Detail. Review of Architecture: Experimental Building. 2001/8 (2001). ISSN 0011-9571

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