The Twentieth Century Society

Casework

Former Western Morning News company headquarters (photo credit grimshaw-architects.com)

Ship shape

In March this year, we submitted an emergency spot-listing application to save the former Western Morning News building in Plymouth, after we were alerted by local campaigners to plans by its then owners, the Daily Mail and General Trust, to demolish the former newspaper HQ, built to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s designs just 22 years ago. Known locally as the ‘Plymouth ship’ because of its distinctive shape, it has been vacant since 2012, but it remains in generally good condition. We were delighted by Historic England’s assessment and recommendation to designate the building at Grade II*.

Built into a steeply sloping hillside overlooking the city, the building was designed to accommodate state-of-the-art printing presses and office space for journalists, all under one roof. The company wanted to relocate from its 19th century premises in central Plymouth, and commissioned Grimshaw’s practice to build a new and larger complex on the edge of the city.

Sir Nicholas Grimshaw has explained to us that the client wanted a headquarters that would be noticed: ‘They wanted to be seen from the hill tops. Everyone should know they were there,’ he told us in March. The firm interviewed every member of staff in the organisation so that they could fully understand the requirements of the company. According to Grimshaw, this procedure, which had not been tried before, worked extremely well for both parties. The newspaper group was impressed by the thoroughness of their research, and the relationship was such a success that the Royal Society published a paper on the architect/client relationship by Grimshaw in 1993.

The upwardly curved shape of the glass facades was designed to deflect reflections of the sky, as the company wanted the public to be able to see into the building – the idea was that the entire newspaper operation, including the printing press, would be on display. This went further than Grimshaw’s building for the Financial Times printworks, in London’s Docklands (1988) where just the printing presses were on public view to passing motorists. The design is also similar to Grimshaw’s clam-shaped RAC control centre building in Bristol (1997).

The Plymouth building is clad in 12mm single-glazed toughened faceted glass sheets. It has tapered curved steel columns which support the roof structure and form the mullions for the outwardly sloping glazing. The glass is supported laterally by eight pairs of arms fixed to the columns, and vertically by tension rods suspended from the tops of the columns. These tusk-like arms, each with a pronounced curve, were spheroidal graphite castings, developed with structural engineers Ove Arup. They were designed in Grimshaw’s office, sculpted first in polystyrene, then in wood. Shortly after it opened, The Times commented that: ‘rarely since Guimard designed the famous Art Nouveau Metro entrance in Paris has an architect produced castings of such organic sculptural quality.’

Above the printing press and office accommodation, the boardroom sits high up in a cantilevered box overlooking the site. It was positioned to give the directors a spectacular view of Plymouth and the sea beyond, as well as being able to spot their previous offices in the city centre. Internally, Grimshaw dispensed with suspended ceilings and each floor level was designed to be open to full height. The building was divided into two sections: the presses occupied the ‘stern’ of the ship, with a triangular atrium surrounded by a ring of glazed cellular offices for management and an outer ring of open plan spaces for journalists and other staff. Grimshaw explained that the atrium provided overlooking balcony and ‘mingling’ spaces and the compact open-office plan encouraged staff to integrate – a key requirement from the initial staff interviews. One of the most striking features of the interior is a free-standing staircase with symmetrical ramps and half-landings with curved balconies and wooden handrails.

The building was widely praised in the architectural press and won a number of awards, including an RIBA award (1994), the British Construction Industry Awards (1993), the Royal Fine Art Commission Building of the Year Award (1993) and the Structural Steel Design Award (1993). It was acclaimed as ‘a brilliantly conceived and superbly crafted piece of architectural indulgence – an extraordinary cross between an innovative rational work of modern architecture and romantic folly.’ The structure, said Building magazine, was a ‘dazzling tour de force of delicate steel and glass detailing – the glass detailing – the Grimshaw hall-mark’.

Grimshaw told us that the ship-shaped building was a response to the topography of the site, and the desire to make the building transparent. Whatever the intention, the press embraced what they saw as alluding to Plymouth’s proud seafaring past. ‘The Western Morning News building has become a spectacular ship-shaped Plymouth landmark and an architectural icon,’ said Building. ‘It has a gang plank entrance and a crow’s nest high on a mast overhead … Even marine style rigging appears in the external cladding …’ By 1996, tours of the building were reportedly booked up for months in advance. The building was used as a ‘brand’ to advertise the paper and as the company logo. The boardroom was often used by city councillors for meetings in preference to the Civic Centre.

There has been considerable interest and local support for our campaign – quite unusual in our experience for a building of this date. Local people held a protest outside the building against demolition, and architects, academics and architectural historians have backed the campaign to save it. These include Lord Richard Rogers and Sir Michael Hopkins; Professor Sir Peter Cook, Sir Tim Smit (co-founder of the Eden Project), Marcus Binney (President of SAVE Britain’s Heritage), Bob Brown, Head of Architecture at the University of Plymouth, and the Plymouth Architectural Trust.

We believe the building is highly significant – it stands out across the city as a building of remarkable quality by one of Britain’s most important 20th century architects. In terms of commercial building design, there is nothing comparable in Plymouth from the 1990s. Listing is now the only option to stop any future plans for demolition; the building lies outside a conservation area and is not locally listed. National designation would trigger the requirement for an application for listed building consent and the full scrutiny of the planning process, and consent for the complete demolition of Grade II* buildings is fortunately very rare.

Such listing does not prevent adapting the building to a new use while preserving its character and special interest, and we are confident that this can be achieved.
Sir Nicholas Grimshaw has written to Historic England outlining seven different alternative uses for the building, from a hospital or university facility to offices.
In their recommendation report, Historic England said: ‘For its pioneering use of materials, its striking design, its innovative planning of office and printing work functions, its successful integration with landscape and its degree of survival, the Western Morning News building should be listed at Grade II*… We have no doubt as to the special interest of the building, the significance of the architect and of this building within his oeuvre.’ We hope the new Secretary of State takes Historic England’s advice, and makes a swift decision.

There is another reason to be optimistic: as we went to press, it was announced that a local developer had bought the building, and, according to reports, welcomes moves to list and protect it. They plan to convert it to an ‘office hub’, so perhaps the Council will have the opportunity to rent space here again – this time in a Grade II* listed landmark that is both celebrated and cherished.

Henrietta Billings

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