David Ardill explores Wilkinson Eyre’s latest additions to the Dyson campus

Buildings.

Words
David Ardill

Photos
Wilkinson Eyre

Almost 20 years after it designed Dyson’s Wiltshire headquarters, architect Wilkinson Eyre has added three new buildings that begin a £250m expansion of the campus – a facility that now extends to 56 acres, accommodates over 3,000 staff and contains 129 research laboratories.

The relationship between client and architect started to take shape after James Dyson read Chris Wilkinson’s 1991 book ‘Supersheds: The Architecture of Long-span, Large Volume Building’. The way in which Wilkinson reconsiders a mundane and often overlooked building type obviously struck a chord with Dyson, whose products often challenge and reinterpret in the same way.

Buildings.

D9 Research & Development building with Lightning Cafe beyond.

The new additions to the campus comprise an R&D facility (‘D9’), a cafe pavilion (the Lightning Cafe), and a sports centre for staff (‘The Hangar’). The architecture is an evolution of the original design approach, placing lightweight modern pavilions in an exquisite rural setting, in such a way that they do not to overwhelm the landscape, and have a well-defined relationship to their context.

The three new buildings are surrounded by a ‘nature walk’. This is not a token gesture; it is evidently enjoyed by the staff, and is one of the ways the rural campus is used by Dyson to attract the best and brightest minds.

The Hangar is a multi-purpose sports centre, with Olympic grade flooring.

In their expression and details, the buildings seem particularly appropriate for a technology company that makes physical things. Wilkinson Eyre’s deft moves speak of James Dyson’s fanatical curiosity about how the physical world works.

It is perhaps in D9 – an 8,000-square-metre flexible work environment for 450 engineers – where the combination of detail and concept is the most powerful. The brief demanded a building that provides privacy for secret research, while engaging with the landscape. While there are many possible approaches to the problem, any over-elaborate solution would inevitably compromise one objective or the other. Instead, Wilkinson Eyre sought to find the most succinct answer. This comes in the form of a reflective glass box that offers views out while preventing views in.

Wilkinson Eyre has refreshingly resisted the urge to ‘add more’, and instead has maximised the advantages of this idea, refining the construction to emphasise its simplicity. To both Wilkinson and Dyson, design is a reductive process, where it takes creativity, focus and discipline to transform a clear conceptual idea into a successful physical product.

D9 successfully protects its top secret contents without visible fortification. Although access to the building is tightly controlled, once you’re inside the space there is a feeling of openness. The facility provides two floors of work spaces set around a central atrium. ‘Project zones’ are located around the perimeter, next to the full-height glazing, with laboratories arranged on the inside. All are perfectly lit by a ground-breaking new line of lighting products designed by Jake Dyson (son of James). Exposed concrete, reflective glass, chilled beams and simple yet exquisitely manufactured steelwork are all there to be seen. D9 is a testament to design as problem-solving, which gains from maximising the legibility of its constituent parts. I really like this building, not for what it shouts but for what it whispers.

Similar in conceptual approach but with a much more public function, the pavilion housing the Lightning Café and meeting rooms promotes a feeling of transparency. In their breaks, staff can sit in the double-height space, eating food prepared by a top chef, with James Dyson’s restored English Electric Lightning jet suspended from the ceiling overhead. This space is a celebration of all things engineering in the truest sense of the word.

The difference between this interior and the offices of many fashionable tech companies, which provide a huge variety of ‘mood’ spaces in their fit-outs, is obvious: at Dyson the lack of variety acts as a canvas for creation. Like the unvarying wardrobe of Albert Einstein, anything more would seem like a distraction.

From the cafe, it’s a short walk to the sports facilities in The Hangar which, in the same meticulous manner, does exactly what it needs to do (and nothing more).

These buildings have been designed to evoke a sense of gentle serenity. They are a sanctuary “out of the critical glare” where innovation can be stimulated yet, as James Dyson puts it. And when I consider the evolution of the campus, it is hard not to draw parallels with the evolution of Dyson itself. The brand feels intrinsically linked to the architecture that houses its team.

The buildings are like functional products; they do not shy away from their purpose by incorporating fashionable gimmicks. Their form and appearance are simply the natural consequence of resolving their unique needs, by meticulously responding to a brief and an environment in a calm and balanced way. The campus speaks of a company that is obsessed with the relentless interrogation of complex problems, seeking pure and simple solutions. It is, as James Dyson explains, a world where “bright minds can breathe life into ideas”.

Additional Images

Download Drawings

Credits