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Warr's Baby

The Right Angle, May / June 2000

by Tony Pettengell

'While the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill on Sea is due to be transformed into a pub, John Warr's pavilion of the pilion, or Harley heaven, on London's King's Road is built to stand the test of time.'

'John Warr is an easy man to please. He just wants the best building to display a whole bunch of motorbikes. Richard Nightingale of architects Cullum & Nightingale is equally relaxed about how to proceed, only taking on buildings that clients really want, not projects that will be sold off for a fast buck.

'Men of principle then.

'And the principle, when it came to the new Warr's Harley Davidson showroom just off King's Road, was to provide the flagship store for Harley Davidson in Europe.

'"The brief was to make the most of the site, which as you can see it's a bit of a promontory. It is quite visible from the King's Road, so we wanted to make something prominent which is partly where the egg-shape comes from. All that was here before the workshop," says Nightingale.

'"This is the first stage of a larger building, the intention being that it should be a complete egg-shape with a workshop attached with two further floors on top (for flats), but that's subject to planning permission."

'The main thing was to get the showroom up and running and worry about the expansion plans at a later date. The previous showroom was very small and Warr's needed space badly.

'"Warr's is a well known company in the motorbike business and needed something more prominent," says Nightingale. "I'm sure the intention was to go beyond the traditional motorbike purchaser."

'John Warr bought the site adjacent to the original workshop three years ago, but left the plot empty while formulating a plan.

'The result is a palace for motorbikes, unlike any showroom in the UK or the rest of Europe. Harley Davidson's have always had a premium image and Warr felt he needed a showroom that reflected that status. And like the bikes it is displaying, there are no unnecessary frills to clutter up the space.

'"Structurally it's a relatively unadorned and muscular building." says Nightingale. "The concrete is not varnished, plastered or finished in any way but it is treated in quite a sophisticated way. The fan vaulted ceiling, for instance, has a structural function, holding up the floors above, but it is modelled quite finely.

'"It was a bit like building a boat in a way. And although it's not mimicking the motorbikes in any way in terms of materials, there is a sort of honest muscularity about it that is akin to the sort of ethos of these bikes.

'"The whole process was very much a two-way thing: we'd suggest something and John would react. There was collaboration all the way through. He didn't insist on any particular style of design and as it went on we got into details."

'Apart from the glittering rows of hot Harleys the one thing that catches you eye almost immediately on entering the showroom is the extravagant sales desk, flying out over the sleek polished wood floors.

'"The desk is very functional and acts as a counter and display case, has all the technical gismos for tills and computers and the air conditioning system functions through its base," says Nightingale. "It's a fairly ambitious piece of engineering, quite an adventurous structure. It's beautifully made in solid American Walnut on a steel structure an like the rest of the building it's hard-wearing and solid and it will last for years."

'So why no plastered finishes, no metalwork, the traditional elements of vehicle showroom design?

'"One reason for not having any fancy finishes here is because these natural finishes will last forever and will grow old gracefully rather than having to be constantly renovated. In 10-20 years time the building won't appear tatty and outdated or tired because it's just not that kind of building."

'It's also not the kind of building Cullum & Nightingale could honestly say they took on. "The practice has a really broad client base," says Nightingale. "We usually work for people who want buildings rather than clients who want to make money from buildings. We don't do any work for developers, for instance.

'"The other thing that's important is collaboration with the client. It's hugely beneficial. It's never take it or leave it. We don't come up with a design that has to be accepted. And it nearly always improves as a result of the two-way process."

'The practice does a lot of work for schools, individuals and the foreign office, and is curently on site with a loft development in New York and a chalet in Chamonix. "We have done retail in the past," says Nightingale, "but all the most prominent was for a diamond company, all marble and columns and gold leaf.

'"Harley Davidson is miles away from that kind of job, but is the same in essence," he says. "We never quite know where the boundary is between architecture and interior design. Whether it's neo-classical interior for a diamond dealer, Harley Davidson or a theatre for a drama school, it's the same basic tenet. The use, the users, the relationship to the site are all important. The relationship with nature, with the elements - light and orientation matter."

'At the King's Road site, light could have become a major stumbling block as they had to juggle with the problems of having an extremely visible showroom with having a space that could be comfortably worked in.

'"At Harley, light and orientation are hugely important. This is obviously a much bigger space than you would really need for motorbike retailing. And it's also to do with materials being appropriate themselves rather than being wrapped up. Buildings are permanent things whereas interiors, especially retail interiors, tend to be off the moment. I've no idea whether this is stylistically Ôof the moment' or not because it doesn't matter - what's important is that is should be equally satisfactory in decades. Obviously commercially it should work, but it should work over a long period."

'To overcome the problems of heat gain with such a big expanse of glass frontage, special glass was used. "There was a bit of a potential conflict because the better the glass is at reducing UV transmission, the darker it becomes and that wouldn't do for a showroom. It was important for John Warr that it should be completely clear. In the end it was a matter of spending more to get clearer glass."

'Because of the expanse of glass it was also important to get the lighting right.

'"The lighting was very difficult," says Nightingale, who has very firm views of how lighting should be approached.

'"Lighting should always be done in the most basic and straighforward way," he says. "The more designed a light is the less satisfactory it will be. I don't mean technically designed, I mean sort of ÔItalianised'. We found ourselves taking lights to bits and just using the innards to make a fitting that really just does the business without all the sort of fins and finery that tend to get applied."

'The main lights are giant industrial lamps which also throw light upwards to highlight the shape of the ceiling. At the opposite end of the space, the whole floor acts as a plenum for the ventilation system. "The floor is a plenum, and the low-velocity air that that filters out of the two columns either side of the entrance and at the base of the till is channelled below it."

'Another important element of the whole project was the importance of the workshop in relation to the retail space. "It was always the plan that you would be able to see through to the servicing area," Nightingale explains, "because that's the real business end of things. It was important that it was seen to be visible because it's very much as much a workshop as a sales showroom. The shelves are more akin to an art gallery, although what is on display are motobike parts. So the fanciest bit of display is the workshop."

'So Warr's baby has been born, but there is a long way to go before it will be the finished article.

'"The building is unfinished and we hope to be able to build flats on top. However, because it's an employment zone they wouldn't allow any residential use. Now, however, there is real pressure with the moves on building on brownfield sites increased density and so on."

'Nightingale says that the lure of the motorbike has been working its magic on him, but for now he's resisting. "I like beautifully engineered machines and I would love a Harley." he says, "but at the moment I drive around town on a 50cc Vespa."'