Guy Austin revels in Renault’s stunning underground Oxfordshire laboratory but a Hampshire new town is about as much fun as having your teeth drilled without anaesthetic
My wonder is the ING Renault F1 Team Computational Fluid Dynamics Centre at Enstone in Oxfordshire. It is an environment-friendly computerised wind tunnel – a world-class subterranean computing facility for perfecting the aerodynamics of the team’s F1 cars and a great project. The team decided to develop it underground because of planning considerations, the desire to be green and the need for a controlled environment for the vast amount of computing power required. All you can see from the outside is a large window cut into the green hillside. Concrete tubes bring in lovely natural light from above and there’s a huge window at the end, which is east facing to reduce solar gain.
The 40-plus people who work in the CFD Centre are convinced they’ve got the best office in the world. You enter it through a tunnel and then arrive in this wonderful, modern space with a great view out. It’s very James Bond.
Then there’s Basingstoke. If you’ve ever been there, you won’t go back in a hurry. It represents that awful new town concept of the late fifties and sixties. They called it “London overspill”, and the phrase says it all. The buildings from that period are the worst examples of modern housing, with white timber boarding on the front and flat roofs. There are office buildings you would hate to work in and roads that lead nowhere and are too wide. I’m sure Basingstoke used to be a nice place. Then someone decided it was going to be a new town and trashed it. My school dentist was in Basingstoke and on one occasion he gave me two fillings in one go without anaesthetic. I came out of the surgery feeling miserable and Basingstoke was damp and dreadful. My loathing started then.
Renault F1 centre opened in 2008 as part of a £31m investment in the firm’s UK headquarters at Enstone. The facility was built underground in order to cope with the tight planning restrictions of the Cotswolds location, a site of special scientific interest. It was designed and engineered by Ridge. SDC was contractor.
Basingstoke in north-east Hampshire dates back to the Iron Age and gets a mention in the Domesday Book. Formerly a small market town, it underwent a massive expansion in the sixties as part of an agreement between the councils in London and Hampshire. It was hoped it would accommodate part of the London “overspill” described in the Greater London Plan of 1944.
Guy Austin is a partner in Ridge and Partners