The Renault Centre has been described as the practices most playful structure. However, its development owes much to earlier, perhaps more reticent schemes for clients such as Reliance Controls and Fred Olsen, which delivered inexpensive, flexible buildings to tight schedules. The Centre was commissioned as the French car manufacturers main UK distribution facility. In addition to warehousing, it includes a showroom, training school, workshops, offices and a staff restaurant. The notion that good design pays has almost become a clich, but in this case it is quantifiable: on the strength of the design, supportive local planners increased their site development limit from 50 to 67 per cent, allowing a floor area of 25,000 square metres.
This is housed within a single enclosure supported by brightly coloured tubular masts and arched steel beams, forming a striking silhouette within its surrounding landscape.
The structural system that repeats itself to form this external outline is based around a 24 by 24 metre bay a much larger than usual planning module developed so as to maximise the planning flexibility of the internal spaces. This expansive horizontal span is combined with an internal clear height of 7.5 metres, allowing the Centre to accommodate a range of uses from industrial warehouse racking to its subdivision into office floors. Enveloped by a continuous PVC membrane roof, pierced by glass panels at each mast, the building is also stepped at one end, narrowing to a single, open bay that forms a porte-cochre alongside a double-height gallery.
Primarily a showroom - as signified by suspended car body shells - the gallery was used by Renault as a popular venue for arts and social events, encouraging wider community involvement in the building.
As much as its internal spaces, however, it is the buildings almost festive Renault-yellow skeleton that gives the Centre such an identifiable character. Significantly, this created such a memorable image that the building, alone among the companys facilities, did not need to carry the Renault logo. In fact it is so closely associated with the brand that for many years Renault used it as a backdrop in its advertising campaigns.
“The Renault project gave Foster Associates the opportunity to further refine the performance and utility of its long-span steel-frame design by introducing mast-supported trusses to create even larger unobstructed floor spaces. The result is a building that consists largely of its own elaborate roofing system, which itself is an interesting precursor to the spectacular roof later designed for the passenger terminal at Stansted Airport … Like the Renault building, Stansted is a ‘big shed’. But where Renault’s PVC roof was penetrated by steel columns and tension rods, Stansted’s 50,000 square metre PVC roof membrane is continuous.” Martin Pawley, Norman Foster; A Global Architecture, 1999
“If The Renault Centre is Foster’s first unequivocal work of structural expressionism, it also marks a high point in the technological shift, begun at Willis Faber and continued at the Sainsbury Centre, from using ready-made to custom-made components from the factory. Almost all of the major component systems at Renault were designed and manufactured for the job in hand. Despite being custom-made, the use of a small variety of repetitive units and low-cost tools helped keep total building costs down to the same as those for a standard industrial ‘shed’. Chris Abel, ‘from Hard to Soft Machines’, 1989
“How Renault and Foster came together is something about which both parties prefer to remain coyly inscrutable. But there is really very little mystery about it. Foster is now the corporate architect ‘de nos jours’. Any firm wishing to exhibit a keen design policy – which is precisely what Renault is attempting to do – will sooner or later be beating a path to his front door.”Alastair Best, The Architects’ Journal, 1 December 1982
“It is sleek shed, slick-tech interior architecture of the kind which Foster does so immaculately. It is the result of loving care and attention to the fine detail of everything form the selection of the vast falls of perforated louvers and screen in the canteen to the design and shaping of the structural members and their connections.”Sutherland Lyall, Building, 10 June 1983
“In the course of resolving the umbrella structure we explored a broad range of solutions, form gridshells and suspension structures to a conventional truss and rafters solution.” Norman Foster
“Ad hoc foster, Gothic Foster, playful, jolly Foster: these are not aspects of the architect we could have imagined before Renault.”Pater Davey, The Architectural Review, July 1983
Construction start: 1982
Area: 25 000 m²
Height: 10 m
Client: Renault UK Ltd
Structural Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
Quantity Surveyor: Davis Belfield & Everest
M+E Engineer: Foster Associates
Landscape Architect: Technical Landscapes Ltd