Offices and distribution centre for IBM UK Ltd, 1977-80 by Foster Associates.
Reasons for Designation
IBM Greenford, built in 1977-80 to designs by Norman Foster and Partners, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: an important early work by one of Britain’s foremost contemporary architects, and one that encapsulates many of the key features of the British Hi-Tech movement;
* Technological interest: an exemplary industrial building of the 1970s, built for an archetypally ‘hi-tech’ client, embodying advanced construction and services and laid out on a zoned plan that clearly expresses the range of functions it was designed to accommodate;
* Historical and social interest: a distinctive late C20 building type, the distribution centre, whose design attempts, by the provision of shared facilities and common environmental standards for blue- and white-collar staff, to promote greater democracy and equality in the workplace.
IBM’s Greenford development was initially planned in 1974, and was intended from the first to combine technical support facilities with a large warehouse and distribution centre. The site, formerly the Rockware Glass factory, was chosen for its proximity to Heathrow Airport and its good links to the west London road network. The firm of Foster Associates, already responsible for the IBM Pilot Head Office building at Cosham in Hampshire (1970-2), was commissioned to prepare a feasibility study. This envisaged a deep-plan shed-like building incorporating multiple processes in distinct functional and service 'zones' - a key theme of the early Hi-Tech movement, prefigured in Foster's earlier design for the Newport Comprehensive School competition (1967, unbuilt) and refined in his studies for the Milton Keynes corporation and the Architectural Review's Manplan 3 report of 1969. Sketches were prepared to show how the facility might expand over time, either by duplication as a series of linked 'pavilions', or else by accretive expansion around courtyards. Both client and architect aimed at a more democratic approach to the workplace, with blue- and white-collar workers sharing facilities and enjoying similar environmental standards. In Norman Foster’s words, ‘we wanted to get away from posh and scruffy, front and back, clean and dirty, we and they divisions’, an egalitarian ethos previously expressed in his 1968 amenities building for Fred Olsen Lines at Milwall.
In 1976, shortly before work at Greenford was due to begin, IBM issued an amended brief that included a ‘computer hall’ in which mainframe computer installations could be demonstrated to prospective clients. The Foster scheme was rapidly revised, with the single monolithic structure replaced by two distinct buildings placed on either side of a service road and connected via a bridge block. The Installation Support Centre (ISC) on the north side of the road, incorporating reception area, offices and computer hall, was built first, in the nine months between February and October 1977. The larger workshop and warehouse building to the south, known as the United Kingdom Distribution Centre (UKDC), was begun shortly afterwards by a different contractor, with the two firms working together on the link block, which was completed - and the building formally opened - in 1980. Apart from Norman Foster himself, other architects working on the project included Spencer de Grey and Ken Shuttleworth; the structural engineers were Anthony Hunt Associates, and the landscaping was designed by the Michael Brown Partnership. The building won the Financial Times Architecture in Industry Award in 1981, and received a commendation from the RIBA.
The ISC block was altered in 1989, with the addition of four matching bays to the east, the reconfiguration of the office interiors and the flooring-over of the double-height computer hall. The UKDC is less altered, although it has received a small addition on its eastern side containing extra loading bays. The landscaped area to the west of the building has been sold and developed as a shopping centre.
Foster Associates was founded in 1967 by Norman (now Lord) Foster (1935- ) following the dissolution of his earlier partnership Team 4, which also included Richard Rogers. Along with Rogers, Terry Farrell and Nicholas Grimshaw, Foster was one of the pioneers of the British Hi-Tech movement, which aimed to bring the techniques and aesthetics of industrial design to bear on architecture. Important early schemes for Foster Associates included the Willis Faber and Dumas building in Ipswich (1971-5; Grade I) and the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia (1974-8; Grade II*). In 1978, while work at IBM Greenford was still ongoing, Foster won the contract to design the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, a commission that set the firm on its subsequent international trajectory. Subsequent landmark projects in the UK have included the terminal building at Stansted Airport, the Greater London Authority Building, 30 St Mary Axe (a.k.a. the Gherkin) and the Sage, Gateshead. Known since the 1990s as Foster & Partners, the practice is now (2012) the largest in the UK.
There are two principal blocks: the Installation Support Centre (ISC) to the north of the site, and the United Kingdom Distribution Centre (UKDC) to the south; both face inwards towards Green Park Way, which is spanned by a linking block on pilotis with a pedestrian underbridge suspended beneath. As was remarked at the time, the overall plan recalls that of Walter Gropius’ 1925-6 Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany. The ISC was expanded eastwards by an additional four bays in 1989.
The ground falls gently from north to south, so that the UKDC has three low storeys to the ISC’s two tall ones. Both are organised internally into a series of east-west ‘zones’. The ISC has three zones: to the south, open-plan offices and reception area; to the north, what was originally the double-height computer hall, floored over in 1989 to create more offices; and between the two a narrow ‘core zone’ containing stairs and services. The larger UKDC is five zones deep. To the north (zone 1) are the truck loading bays and small parts stores, with a reception area (entered from the underbridge) and more storage on the first floor, and offices and a cafeteria above. Behind this is the narrow service core (zone 2), beyond which are the workshops and storage support facilities (zone 3). The two rear bays (zones 4 and 5) are full-height warehouses. The link block originally contained an on-site bank and travel agency.
STRUCTURE AND MATERIALS
The building's external envelope is divided into transparent and opaque sections, the former being of large (approximately 4m by 2.5m) glass panels flush-set in neoprene gaskets, and the latter of horizontally-ribbed aluminium sheeting, with specially-made corner pieces of moulded fibreglass. In the ISC this outer skin is applied over an 8100mm by 9000mm steel grid, with dramatic cross-bracing in the corner bays and a space-frame roof above. Both grid and roof structure are continued across the bridge and through the front half of the UKDC, but here the lower two levels are concrete-framed, with steel used only on the upper floor. The two warehouse bays at the rear, divided from the rest of the building by a fireproof concrete wall, are steel-framed on a larger 8100mm by 27m grid.
The low, shed-like forms of the building announce the industrial character of the site, while the futuristic sleekness of the external envelope hints at the state-of-the-art technology housed inside. An even roofline is maintained across the two blocks and the linking bridge, with services concealed on the flat roof above. The ISC building is fully glazed to front and rear, while the UKDC is glazed to the front (north) and at either end of zone 3. The steel and concrete components of the structural grid are painted bright green and are clearly visible through the glazing, dissolving the distinctions between structure and cladding, inside and outside. Circulation components – stairs, doors, balustrades, the pedestrian underbridge – are also visible from without, and are painted a vivid blue.
A series of truck bays have been added to the eastern end of the UKCD; these, and the various later service structures around the perimeter of the building, are not of special interest.
The interiors in the ISC building were designed for flexibility and have been much reconfigured, with the computer hall to the north floored over. With the exception of the remodelled cafeteria and office areas on the top floor, the UKDC building has seen less internal alteration. The small parts store (zone 1) and the storage support area (zone 3) are great columned halls of single and double height respectively, both spanned by coffered concrete ceiling slabs; the support area has a dramatic central light-well set beneath a glazed roof in the workshop above. The goods lifts, conveyor belts and service ducts that run through this part of the building are painted the same blue as the circulation areas. The warehouses (zones 4 and 5) are huge windowless triple-height spaces, artificially illuminated by fittings suspended from the roof grid.