The latest occupant of Derby’s Olivetti Building is renovating Ted Cullinan’s classic design with enthusiasm, and we hope with care
This is such a pioneering building with its rakish kit-of-parts plywood superstructure, and somehow I’d wrongly assumed it must have vanished long ago. It’s the 1971 regional HQ for British Olivetti in Derby, one of four built around the UK to the same adaptable design by Edward Cullinan with an A-list team including Julyan Wickham, Tchaik Chassay, Julian Bicknell and Giles Oliver. I was up in Derbyshire, idly flicking through an old Buildings of England, and it leapt off the page at me. ‘Stylish and expandable,’ noted Pevsner’s co-editor Elizabeth Williamson. ‘Immediately identifiable by its big yellow plastic-clad roof’ – although she darkly noted that it had not been well maintained. I feared the worst. What part-prefabricated industrial-park building lasts 44 years, especially once its original client has departed?
A bit of Googling revealed not only that the building still existed (and had been a key venue for 2014’s East Midlands Love Architecture festival), but that it had a new owner since February, Fresh Logistics, who seemed rather keen on it. Indeed they’d asked the Cullinan Studio to go and see them, have been in touch with James Boon of Derby architects and conservation specialist Lathams, and moreover opened up the building to the University of Derby’s construction management students on a maintenance and refurbishment module. This all sounded encouraging. So I went to see it.
Well, the yellow plastic-coated steel-and-polyurethane thin sandwich roof covering has at some point been replaced with a more sober silver-grey system, but it is still immediately identifiable, the big roof with its oversailing eaves scalloped with windows angled to look both out and downwards, to check on vehicles arriving beneath the front of the building. It has a slightly oriental feel to it – indeed the version built in Carlisle later became the Pagoda Chinese restaurant, though that one is now a much-modified carpet store. Belfast’s has been hideously overclad, while Dundee’s, housing an audio-visual company, looks reasonably spruce and well cared-for from the outside. (None has its original roof.) In Derby too, after 30 years of occupation by a computer company, the original form of the building is still intact, the spindly cast-in-place concrete pilotis unenclosed, and the classic scent-marking of the 1960s/70s architect – tethered chains acting as rainwater downpipes, always interesting in a strong wind – present and correct.
A man with a sledgehammer was breaking out blockwork on the ground floor. ‘Want to look around?’ he asked, seeing the camera. He turned out to be from Fresh Logistics, starting the refurbishment. Clearly a hands-on kind of company. Inside, the concrete ground floor is straightforward enough –originally fitted with workshops and stores – but leads through to a concourse, overlooking a large garden behind, at which point it feels more like a university college building than an industrial one – think of Cullinan’s contact with James Stirling, working alongside him on Olivetti’s Haslemere head office previously, and of Stirling’s Florey Building in Oxford, then being built.
From this concourse you move up to the office level where Cullinan plays the old game of compression and release. The ceilings are amazingly low as you enter (about an inch above my admittedly tall head), but then kick up into the plywood-lined roof zone. Daylight also enters from the other direction via a clerestory, while the common areas to the rear are beneath a lower flat roof. Most of the interior plywood, originally left bare, has been painted over the years but some parts remain untouched, including a huge pivoting door (another 60s/70s leitmotif) into a meeting room. You’d think the acid-green steel columns here were the intended colour but no, originally they were painted purple as a test paint scrape reveals.
The concept was that the buildings could expand as necessary, and eventually form a quad around a landscaped garden which was thus protected from the normally depressing surroundings of the edge-of-town industrial estates where they were situated. The Derby example is a flattened U shape with stubby return wings, its ends sliced off like a loaf and a bit of freestanding concrete structure continuing at one end to imply a future continuation that never happened. In the event – as Cullinan senior partner Robin Nicholson, then working with Stirling, recalls – Olivetti completely misread its market, both in business machines and office furniture. It turned out that the new buildings didn’t need to expand, they needed to shrink. After only a decade they were sold. Today the Haslemere HQ is a hotel and conference centre.
The regional centres were prescient in other ways – Nicholson remarks that in the late-90s era of the Egan Report ‘Rethinking Construction’, when the call went out for more, better production-line buildings, the Olivetti quartet seemed right on the money.
Nicholson and fellow partner Kristina Roszynski took up Fresh Logistics’ invitation and came back encouraged. As Roszynski says: ‘They called us out of the blue. It’s nice to find someone doing this about a building they want to care for. This has always been a building we’ve really enjoyed. They’re restoring it, in a way, as Ted saw it.’
For the owners, Kelly Osborn (yes, she gets all the jokes) says much the same: ‘We want to bring it back to its original state while making it fit for the 21st century.’ The firm is pondering using the large south-facing flat-roofed rear part for solar panels. Meanwhile its website trumpets the building’s virtues: ‘The Olivetti building holds the status of architectural importance to Derby because of its award winning and innovative design,’ it says. ‘Don’t be surprised when you see design students milling around from universities. Actually come to think of it, most seasoned architects, surveyors and designers can be seen milling around as well.’
So that’s good – though I’m concerned that the company seems to be doing its relatively light-touch renovation with much enthusiasm but only informal professional architectural input. No architect has (at the time of writing) been appointed to the job. And most of that surprisingly extensive garden will vanish. Fresh Logistics runs a fleet of chilled-produce vans and they need parking space for them. However, even this was in a way anticipated: Cullinan’s team designed the landscape on two levels, the higher part forming a plinth on a level with the main concourse. This plinth will stay in some form as the rest gets Tarmacked. Inside, Fresh Logistics will take one end of the building for its office staff and let the rest out to others in the same trade.
So, with crossed fingers, please welcome the East Midlands Logistics Centre, latest incarnation of the British Olivetti building. Proof that the best kind of construction industry recycling is direct re-use of a very ingenious and forward-thinking building. And that a strong architectural concept, by a Royal Gold Medallist, can survive the vicissitudes of time. Assuming it re-emerges in reasonable shape, is it time to consider listing?