A perfectionist’s palace
Officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the 12th May 2004, the McLaren Technology Centre is as bold a statement of British industry that one will come across. The know-how, vision and sheer determination of Ron Dennis and the McLaren people, and the esteemed architect Lord Norman Foster has created a workplace far removed from the preconceptions of office space and factory floors. Natural light gushes in from all angles and the lighting system is responsive to the changes in brightness outside, always maintaining a consistent level of lighting throughout. The cleanliness of the centre is quite extraordinary.
During my one-hour tour I saw no fewer than four cleaners sweeping the floors and polishing the cars. The attention to detail is stunning with every possible outcome and possibility catered for within the centre, right down to the fact that the floor tiles can withstand pressure of three tonnes, just in case they need to grant access to a heavy goods vehicle. Indeed the MTC has been designed by not one perfectionist, but two.
The partnership between McLaren and Lord Norman Foster was the only combination that could have made such a flamboyant vision a reality. The man leading the McLaren vision was Ron Dennis and it is clear that neither he nor Lord Foster have arrived at the pinnacle of their respective industries, without being a complete perfectionist. Foster and Partners designed the new Hong Kong airport, the Reichstag in Berlin, the Hong Kong Bank in Hong Kong and are also currently working on a redevelopment of Camp Nou, home of Barcelona Football Club. Such projects emphasise the diversity of Foster and Partners and the Barcelona project will again provide the group with an opportunity to flex its architectural muscle in a city that hosts some of the most exquisite architecture in the world.
With this in mind it easy to see why McLaren were so keen to form a partnership with such a group. The similarities between McLaren and Foster are marked; both strive for perfection in everything they do, they share an ideology of the workplace and neither company is willing to compromise nor settle for second best. “I think in a funny way we ended up choosing each other,” remarked Foster of his relationship with Ron Dennis. “We are almost exactly the same – we were even born on the same day!” added Dennis.
The completed MTC project even has a similar veneer to the offices of Foster and Partners. The abundance of natural light, the vast space within and the soothing and natural presence of water mean the two workplaces have much in common. Both buildings also offer a new way of thinking about the workplace. “It's one of those rare occasions when the nature, the workings and the appearance of a building really do matter, not just to those who'll work there but to those who visit,” said Foster. “My colleagues and I had been engaged for many years in meeting the challenge of social, technological and lifestyle change, the way they interlock, and looking at the re-evaluation of the workplace as a good place to be. In many ways, both Ron Dennis and McLaren have been an extraordinary inspiration. This inspiration has permeated down into the building itself."
Indeed the MTC does challenge the traditional thinking of a workplace. Employees usually envisage the workplace not as a place of enjoyment and peace, but one of a daily grind. The MTC has shifted this notion and made it a home away from home for the some 1000 McLaren employees who are stationed here. One striking point about the building is the peace and quiet. Its nigh on impossible to know that such a large scale automotive and technological operation is housed here. The wide corridors, or ‘streets’, are perfectly clean, perfectly lit and perfectly quiet. Every aspect of the employees function is catered for in order to engage the mental processes of innovation and inspiration. The vast McLaren trophy cabinet, en route to the employee restaurant, serves as a daily reminder to those employed here of the history and the glory of McLaren’s past. World Championship winning cars adorn the MTC’s main ‘boulevard’, right in front of the signature lake. The heritage on display here covers the CanAm, IndyCar, Le Mans and Formula 1 successes experienced by the McLaren team. Occupying pride of place amongst these illustrious vehicles is a 1929 Austin 7 Ulster, the car which Bruce McLaren restored and raced to his first victory in New Zealand in 1954. 50 years on and the McLaren name has lent itself to this architectural masterpiece, another reminder of just how far the team and company have come in such a relatively short space of time.
Everything about the MTC serves a function and has been thought through. The lake is, perhaps, the most crucial element of the MTC. As well as being visually stunning it is vital to the running of the MTC and, in particular, the on site wind tunnel (the only noisy area of the entire complex). The main lake is fed by four smaller lakes, encompassing 50,000m³ of water, which in turn feeds water through a system of pipes within the MTC that keep the temperature within at a constant 21 degrees Celsius. Visually the lake is also crucial as it affords a soothing and very natural element to the MTC. The sight of the carp fish swimming around the lake bring you back to nature in an instant. The lake is also the most impressive piece of artwork on display, lined as it is by wild flowers and acres of grass and trees that complete the 62 hectare site. The 334 panels of glass that make up the front façade of the MTC, each tinted with ultraviolet reflective properties in order to reduce any glare, open up the MTC to its rural haven. This element of synergy is another aspect that runs throughout the MTC.
Each of the six McLaren Group companies is housed here; McLaren Racing, Mclaren Automotive, McLaren Applied Technologies, McLaren Electronics, McLaren Marketing and Absolute Taste (the catering division). Whilst each is kept separate from one another the six all come together in the employee restaurant, since eating at your desk is strictly forbidden within the MTC. Each separate company also runs with its own effortless ease since the design and marketing teams are housed directly above the assembly division of each company. Should any of the mechanics have an issue with any part then they can pop upstairs and have a word with the individual who designed that part. Simple.
With the 2009 season not exactly going according plan for the McLaren Racing division, the employees are working around the clock to find solutions to make the MP4-24 more competitive. They are able to call upon the expertise of all divisions of the McLaren Group and I don’t think that anyone doubts that the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes outfit will bounce back at some stage. This sense of disappointment is in no way evident in this most tranquil of industrial units. Indeed today there is a lot more to the McLaren Group than just existing as a Formula 1 team. McLaren had the vision to expand the company’s operations into other sectors and house this vision within another vision; the MTC
Upon arrival at the MTC there is no clear sense of what awaits you. It is impossible to view it from Chertsey Road, the winding stretch of tarmac that runs from Ottershaw into Woking, since planning restrictions mean that the MTC is only 11 metres above ground level. The planting of some 100,000 trees such as Turkish Hazel, Norwegian Maple, White Stemmed Himalayan Birch and Scots Pine trees have been specially selected along with a wide variety of ornamental shrubs and two-and-a-half kilometres of box hedging to provide an ever changing, year round display that also shields the MTC from public view. In addition, 33 hectares of the site have been sown with wild flower seeds to establish a wild-flower meadow in front of the building. As you pass through the security gates and park up, a futuristic glass pod is accessed with your card, and you wind your way down the metal staircase to a brilliantly white and long straight corridor. It evokes thoughts of a James Bond villain’s lair such is the sparse nature of the corridor. A variety of doors blend into the white walls, only stating their existence with small numerical markings, and a couple of uniformed McLaren employees shuffle along the same corridor, clipboards in hand. At the end of the eternal corridor is hidden a tubular glass lift, more Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than James Bond now. The lift passes up above ground level and offers the first glimpse of just how special this building is as you exit on the floating walk way that hangs above the main boulevard of the MTC. Receptionists perform their duties in circular pods in front of the offices and the sense of open space, tranquillity and natural light make you jealous of the people who work here.
“It is a challenge to achieve perfection but that does not mean that we should not try,” says McLaren. As is true of all the McLaren Group’s activities, that desire for perfection lies behind every element that has gone into the design of their headquarters. It is this realisation that makes one recognise what an achievement the McLaren Technology Centre truly is.