‘An outstanding ambassador for British design and construction’: Grimshaw looks towards the world
The International Terminal Waterloo changed everything for Grimshaw. The practice won this plum job in the late 1980s not least because British Rail had sent a delegation to its ambitious 1988 Product + Process exhibition at the RIBA, and liked what it saw. The project catapulted the practice from a group of around a dozen people working mainly on the urban fringes to a large firm clearly capable of demanding and prestigious city-centre projects. Its construction cost was £120 million, probably at least £500 million at today’s construction prices. ‘This must be one of the most exciting commissions in Europe today’ ran BR’s invitation to submit. Grimshaw was selected from 10 practices.
Built very rapidly, it was completed a year before the Channel Tunnel trains started running, and served as the London international terminal from 1994 to 2007, when the new high-speed line into St Pancras International opened.
A building with a thoroughly sustainable and eye-catching cooling system: a glass facade with water running continually down it, then turning into a curtain of cooling water for those queuing outside
Subsequently mothballed, with uses including a temporary theatre and overspill platforms, the International Terminal finally reopened in December 2018 as a full part of Waterloo Station. It is being adapted – unfortunately by others – as a shopping centre on the levels below the tracks.
As a typology this building clearly played to Grimshaw’s strengths, its form an asymmetric reinterpretation of 19th century trainsheds and glasshouses. As with those, a collaborating structural engineer was key: in this case Tony Hunt helped realise the concept of the sequence of arches as an outspread skeletal hand. At first a similar structural arrangement was proposed for what became the Eden Project in Cornwall, best-known of the practice’s ‘millennium projects’, until that morphed into the now-familiar interlinked geodesic domes clad in inflated ETFE pillows – see Grimshaw in the 2000s.
A key follow-up was the invitation to design the UK’s pavilion at Expo ’92 in Seville: so now the practice was representing the entire nation on a world stage. This punishingly hot location generated a building with a thoroughly sustainable and eye-catching cooling system: a glass facade with water running continually down it, then turning into a curtain of cooling water for those queuing outside. Done in collaboration with water sculptor William Pye, this was an early demonstration of low-energy credentials, powered by rooftop solar panels. Entirely prefabricated, the pavilion was also designed so that all its component parts could be reused.
This was the decade that overseas projects started to multiply. Ludwig Erhard Haus in Berlin, seeking maximum floorspace without going high, is made of a series of parabolic steel arches from which large office floorplates are suspended: a simple concept that was tricky to realise. Meanwhile a classically Grimshaw industrial building, the mast-supported Igus HQ and factory in Cologne, generated a rare commission for a one-off house for younger members of this family firm. The Spine House at Oberkühlheim is an orthogonal steel building split into two splayed halves by a central timber-clad spine – reminiscent of an aircraft fuselage – containing all the services. It culminates in a lookout deck to make the most the views from its hillside setting.
After Waterloo, transport projects became a staple of Grimshaw’s output, steadily increasing in scale
After Waterloo, transport projects became a staple of Grimshaw’s output, steadily increasing in scale. The practice was entrusted with large upgrades of Paddington Station and the rest of Waterloo, and won a significant airport project in Zurich. Back home, however, two projects in particular confirmed that Grimshaw was now accepted at the heart of British society: the Grand Stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, and the Bath Spa project.
If the first is clearly enough a typical celebration of structure and componentry – the whole stand has only one central column, rising to a mast from which the spread wings of the roof are suspended – Thermae Bath Spa was a matter of conservation and adaptation as well as newbuild, making a modern spa using the same naturally occurring hot springs that first delighted the Romans, and later the Georgians. Close to the early Farrell/Grimshaw Partnership project of the riverside Herman Miller Factory, it is emblematic of how far the practice had moved by the turn of the millennium.
Grimshaw in the 1990s: a visual timeline