Despite all that glass, there are parts of Wilkinson Eyre’s latest additions to the Dyson campus that are strictly off limits
If you know someone who works at Dyson then you will know about it. They will have told you. Or their mum and dad will. Even if they have to keep what they’re working on secret. It’s that sort of company – radical inventor injects life into British engineering, and makes everyday objects a little bit more exciting.
You may not know anyone who works there, but you have probably specified one of the company’s hand driers. Chris Wilkinson and the team at Wilkinson Eyre score on both counts. Wilkinson has been working with James Dyson for 20 years, turning part of an industrial estate just outside Malmesbury, Wiltshire, first into a manufacturing facility and headquarters and now into a high-tech campus – high-tech both in its architecture and what goes on within it.
As for the secrecy… will I get to see what the future holds on my visit? We’ll come to that. First let’s look at the architecture and, because this is what visitors see initially, the car park. Once you are past security it is almost hidden, the hedges now maturing – think upmarket business park, the landscape here and everywhere on the campus having the air of being managed by the National Trust. Neat crowns of small trees sit alongside the mirrored glass of the entrance building, its wavy roof bobbing gently above them. The idea was that it should float, says Wilkinson of this early building. The glazed entrance pavilion lies across a glass bridge spanning a pool of water that was once dyed purple, a trademark colour for the first Dyson products.
Chris Wilkinson was introduced to James Dyson by engineer Tony Hunt. Wilkinson had just written Supersheds (1991), and this long span, large volume building type has proved as ubiquitous as he predicted – not just in its beautifully engineered form but also in panellised inevitability at city edges and motorway hubs.
Other examples of the genre include Foster’s Renault distribution centre nearby in Swindon, now partly a children’s play space, and Grimshaw’s Financial Times printing press in London’s Docklands, later converted to an internet switching centre. This early Dyson building has also shown itself as flexible as Wilkinson had hoped. It started as a small conversion, then was extended and extended on that 3m grid set out by Hunt. As the company has grown and its manufacturing shifted to Malaysia, sections of the building have been reconfigured: loading bays converted into offices.
This latest collection of buildings draws on the same language. When Wilkinson, a veteran of Lloyd’s from his time with Richard Rogers, discussed the buildings with his rather younger team he advised them to research high tech. The three principal buildings are distinguished by large panels of glass, elegantly and almost invisibly put together, and powerful rooflines.
The new research and development building (D9) sits alongside the new Lightning Café. They are separated by a friendly and busy tree-studded street with a loop of nature walk thrown loosely around them. These two extend the original site westwards behind a hedge-topped bund and towards the third newcomer, the Hangar, a sports pitch and gym building which lies beyond the security fence at a more public entrance to the site.
The turf-covered Second World War hangars of RAF Hullavington lie just south of Dyson HQ, and of course James Dyson has a penchant for planes and flying machines which he indulges at points around the campus – part museum display, part public art (and a space for his own helicopter). So a hangar, this one aluminium, seems an apt form, an efficient and economical covered space without pretension. The 3,000 Malmesbury employees ensure it is well used, and it is a place that locals could also make use of. It’s a shame that the one piece of architecture Dyson offers up to public view is the cheapest and tinniest of its buildings. Despite the discipline exercised inside on the coordination of services, the aluminium standing seam marks it out as a utility building.
Not surprisingly, the real investment has gone into D9, the laboratory building for research and design development. Encased in a rigorous glass envelope, its sealant is piped in perfect lines, and the top of the building is a sheer slice across the glass. Wilkinson says he imagined this campus rather like Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus in Chicago, a comparison without hubris. But what captured my imagination were the external escape stairs. By doing a little dance of celebration between ground and air, they relieve the box from a certain harshness. The stairway’s design is sparing, its two columns pared to 89.9mm diameter, but the balustrades cant inwards a little and criss-crossing supports underneath create energetic filigree.
But let’s not get carried away. This is a building non-disclosure agreements were made for, the ‘secret labs’ of the Dyson supersonic hairdryer ads, where hair is examined under the microscope, where floor cleaning devices are tested and where fluid mechanics meets product development in the creative fusion of hundreds of ideas. Or so I am told. Jake Dyson, lighting designer son of James Dyson and heir apparent, explains that only proposals that perform 5-10% better than what is already on the market get through to development. Dyson fiercely protects those ideas: careless whispers cost the company. This building is designed to guard against that, with no accidental views afforded to staff outside the core team. As we walk around, members of the team keep ahead of us, checking that areas are clear. The cavernous ground floor takes a few minutes to check, even though the testing units are not yet installed.
Here the engineers have small structured teams targeted at a ‘vision spec’, Jake Dyson explains. They work predominantly in the labs in the centre of the plan, encased in a ‘fat’ wall of services. We journalists are not allowed in there. Nor are other members of staff unless specifically invited. I am assured that the fit-out of the labs are quite ordinary – but their contents are not. Outside the labs there is a wide central spine and lofty write-up spaces for the engineers.
Below the concrete soffit a minimised suite of services sits alongside active chilled beams. Two thirds of the company’s work is with air flow, and achieving 100% fresh air was a target set by James Dyson himself. His son Jake is particularly delighted with the prototypes of his lights. ’My ambition was to make lights to look like floating satellites,’ he says. His CU-Beams are intended to create focus lighting around tasks, with an adjustable beam and an ambient uplight. They add great delicacy and precision to the space, even if, as singular objects, they seem awkwardly technical. Along with the Dyson Airblade taps (look, no drips on the walls) they could point to a kind of future for high-functioning commercial buildings.
Staff can relax in the more playful Lightning Café, where supersonic-pink Jacobsen chairs are dragged out into the street on a fine day. The glass facade is topped with an oversailing roof, a detail all too often unpleasantly chunky in profile but here elegantly slim. A first floor block of meeting rooms sits over the servery, while the kitchen protrudes at the back to accommodate the space required for preparation of 1,000 covers a day.
Circular shapes and cut-outs at either end of the building are echoes of the first Dyson vacuum cleaner, the Cyclone. The geometry is dynamically disrupted by the suspended English Electric Lightning jet that gives the café its name, its wings skimming the walls of the space. The swirl of the spiral staircase (one of the circles) seems attractively ordinary but again is done with an outstanding rigour.
Wilkinson Eyre associate Yasmin Al-Ani Spence handles everything Dyson, from D9 to the energy centre on the campus and ‘Dyson Demo’ shop in Oxford Street, and must be responsible for much of what we see. But she points to the detail- and design-focused client, James Dyson, who would – and did – discuss everything down to the type of trays in the café, and contractor ISG which has been on site since the earliest projects.
So no industrial secrets to share, no revelations about what market Dyson plans to spring innovation on next. But this is a good injection of the best of British design and engineering: two excellent, rigorous buildings, with inventive sparks, on the edge of a market town in the British countryside.
Energy centre: 700m2
The Hangar: 1600m2
Architect Wilkinson Eyre
Main contractor ISG
Structural engineers and M&E consultant Buro Happold
Lighting Jake Dyson