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In the 1960s there was still a strong tradition in industrial architecture of the segregated management box and workers' shed with their overtones of 'us and them', 'clean and dirty', 'back and front'. At the Reliance Controls Factory, Team 4 sought to introduce a radical new approach. The result was a democratic pavilion where management and employees shared a single entrance and a single restaurant, a practice unheard of at the time. With the electronics industry then in its infancy, the building was regarded as a light-industrial prototype, its organisation and design implying new democratic standards in the workplace.

The building's emphasis on prefabricated metal components allowed the structure to be built in less than a year at very low cost

The structural steelwork was celebrated both inside and out, indeed the structural members were painted white to contrast with the grey, plastic-coated, corrugated-steel cladding.

Wherever possible, elements were designed to do double or even triple duty: for example, the fluorescent lighting was set within the troughs of the corrugated roof decking - a solution which meant that reflectors were unnecessary. The steel frame enclosed a single open space of 3,200 square metres, within which only the toilets, kitchen and plant room were fixed in place. Much of the rest of the accommodation could be changed at will by moving the non-structural internal partitioning. This latent flexibility paid off when the client, in a sudden production surge, was able, unaided, to increase his production area by 33 per cent.

The building was the winner of the first Financial Times Industrial Architecture Award. In its report the jury said: 'Its uncompromising simplicity and unity of general conception and detailed design create an atmosphere that is not only pervasive but notably comfortable to be in. It is refreshing to find something so beautifully direct that it looks like a lost vernacular.'

Completed in 1966, Reliance Controls was the last major project before the break-up of Team 4 and the founding of Foster Associates. The building was demolished in 1991 despite a televised local appeal for its preservation because of its originality and historical importance.

“Designed for an electronics industry then in its infancy, this democratic pavilion broke new ground, both socially and technologically. It was the opposite of the traditional management box and workers’ shed with its overtones of ‘us and them’; ‘clean and dirty’, ‘front and back’. Management and employees shared a single entrance and a single restaurant, a practice unheard of at the time. Its emphasis on prefabricated components allowed the structure to be built in under a year, at very low cost. The structural steel frame enclosed a single volume within which only the toilets, kitchen and plant rooms were permanent structures, which meant that the plan could be reconfigured simply by moving the partitioning. This flexibility paid off when the client, in a sudden production surge, was able to increase his production area by a third.” Norman Foster

“A pavilion form was considered more socially appropriate for a clean and rapid growth electronics industry than the usual workers’ shed and management box with its implication of ‘we and they’, ‘clean and dirty’. ‘posh and scruffy’, ‘back and front’. Technically such a form also offered a degree of rationalisation, which was more responsive to optimising limited resources of time and money, as well as providing the potential for quick and easy change.” Norman Foster, Foster Associates, 1979

“Reliance Controls incorporated or hinted at many of the innovations Norman Foster was to bring to industrial and commercial architecture over the following three decades: a rational deep-plan design for minimal superstructure surface area; large module, clear-span steel construction with light metal cladding; the minimisation of wet trades; the extensive use of metal components for quick construction; a multi-functional internal space that could be reconfigured rapidly; a rational distribution of services from above and below; and, last but not least, workplace democracy achieved through design.” Martin Pawley, Norman Foster: A Global Architecture, 1999

“Eames had reversed the normal design process of creating a house design and then choosing the materials by starting off with American builders’ suppliers catalogues and assembling his design, rather like a kit of parts, from readily available components. From (this) approach… there developed a hard-edged architectural type which Reyner Banham aptly described as the ‘serviced shed’.. the reliance Controls factory was reckoned at the time to be a turning point in built factory design and represents the modest beginning of the serviced shed aesthetic.” Sutherland Lyall, The State of British Architecture, 1980

“Reliance Controls took a very simple stance about the kind of building that might be appropriate to the electronics industry. An open-ended pavilion, flexible, with moveable walls under an umbrella roof, it had the ability to adapt and change as circumstances required.” Norman Foster

“Reliance Controls marked a turning point, in moving from ‘traditional’ heavy materials to factory-made, lightweight components.” Norman Foster

“Whenever possible, elements were designed to do double or even triple duty – for example, the metal roof profile also acted as a lighting reflector for recessed fluorescent tubes as well as performing structurally as a stiff diaphragm.” Norman Foster, Foster Associates, 1979

“Anticipating Foster’s later, more complex exercises in integrated design and tailor-made components, many elements in the building served more than both the purpose and performance for which they were designed by their manufacturers.” Chris Abel

“Reliance Controls confronted the politics of integrating the workplace. Instead of accepting the status quo, it suggested a far more egalitarian, flexible and appropriate response.” Norman Foster

Appointment: 1967

Area: 3 200m²

Client: Reliance Controls Ltd.

Awards

  • 'Financial Times' Industrial Architecture Award
  • Architectural Design Project Award