The Arts: Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? ; the Closure Last Week of the Daringly Designed Museum of Pop Music in Sheffield Is Not the First Time Brilliantly Purposeful Architecture Has Rapidly Become Redundant. Jay Merrick Considers the Fate of the Much- Admired 1988 Classic, Nicholas Grimshaw's Financial Times Printing Works
Merrick, Jay, The Independent (London, England)
The giant blue press-lines were switched off for the last time eight years ago, but the edifice is still known as the Financial Times printing works. The building remains the finest modern architectural landmark on the stretch of the A13 that slices through London's docklands. The dual carriageway passes the smoked glass and steel facade and the adjoining cluster of oddly pristine byroads whose names murmur wistfully of perfidious Victorian doings by a stretch of the Thames that Joseph Conrad described in his Heart of Darkness as "one of the dark places of the earth".
The two hectares around the old printing works present a heart of archness, a connecting series of stylish medium-rise office blocks without style, in colours that are not quite memorable; buildings whose stiffly padded and crudely stitched-up elevations are the architectural equivalent of a suit-to-forget from Montague Burton. The names of the roads that bind the area are achingly bathetic: Clove Crescent, Saffron Avenue, Nutmeg Lane, Coriander Avenue. They are overlooked by a gunmetal grey Travelodge and a luxury warehouse apartment development, some of whose inhabitants will no doubt be sellers of futures rather than pasts.
Two stones' throws away, beneath the A13 and under a withered wreath ("Lee RIP") fixed to the central reservation railings, trunking conduits carry the bundled spaghetti of international fibre- optic comms lines. Many of them flow out of the old Financial Times building, which is the only spicy thing left on the urban menu in Poplar. The fate of this building, and many other striking architectural works, shows how the mighty are fallen - and how fallen can become mightily different.
When Nicholas Grimshaw's award-winning building was completed in 1988, the Architectural Review correspondent John Winter told it like it was. "The Financial Times print works in London's docklands is, like other buildings in the area, an isolated object," he wrote that November. "Yet by careful location and skilful use of glass technology, the architect has made it a literally dramatic monument at what would otherwise have been a dreary road junction."
The building's diaphanous skin made it "wonderfully clear and attractive. In the centre of the press hall is a gap between the two machines. Here, one can look out across from gallery to glass skin and appreciate the splendour of the place, a splendour comparable in many ways to the generator hall at Battersea power station."
The particulars of the building's exterior are still intact. The 286 two-metre square panels of Pilkington planar glass still glint across the main facades, held in place by a then-innovative arrangement of steel dinner plate-sized pads linked to vertical outriggers. East India Dock House, to call it by its current name, still cuts a remarkable dash; give or take a few minor smears of rust here and there, the building looks surprisingly new. The crisp simplicity of the overall form is as dateless as Norman Foster's Willis Faber building in Ipswich - as jet black as the shades worn by the Blues Brothers - which the printing works superseded in terms of glazing technology.
The printing works was shut down within six years - the FT outsourced its printing - and the building lay more or less inert until a 1998 joint venture involving Stockdale Properties attempted to redevelop it into what one of Stockdale's directors called "a leisure box". That didn't work out, and developers spent more than pounds 20m last year converting the building into a so-called internet carrier hotel operated by Global Switch London.
The building's interior is certainly no longer "wonderfully clear and attractive". Apart from two foyers and a small operations suite, it is little more than three floors of corridors and rooms humming with the switchgear of the 16 internet carrier companies that have so far moved into the building. …