Blog : An unlikely design icon

There is a bold design connection that links the Ferrari Dino with the Renault Centre in Swindon, Wiltshire – neither object bears the logo of its famous manufacturer.

Originally created as a sister brand for Ferrari’s absent of 12 cylinders, the yellow Dino logo graced the first mid-engined Ferrari and was born of the Old Man decreeing his customers might not be ready for this configuration in a road-going sports car. The Dino was a striking design which shouted Ferrari, without so much as a single discreet badge proclaiming so.

Renault without recognition?

If Lord Foster, or his client Renault, contemplated the Pininfarina design from 1968 is unknown. However, his brief stipulated these requirements – ‘becoming recognisable within your market, you must also become recognisable in the environment’ – or, effectively, build a structure that says Renault without Renault actually being present and simply by the use of Renault’s corporate yellow, allied to the Foster & Partners ‘playful’ structure.

‘Such was the Centre’s draw, it even secured a cameo appearance in the Renault fans’ favourite Bond outing View To A Kill’

Foster + Partners are today recognised worldwide for architectural projects, from France’s Millau viaduct to London’s ‘Gherkin’ (the affectionate name for the Swiss RE building). Back in 1980 Foster’s most notable project to date was the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters – ‘the best bank building in the world’, the £8m Renault Centre arguably being ‘the best warehouse in the world’. Mind you, with tongue firmly in cheek, that might equally be ‘the best Stanstead Airport development hack in the world’.

An unusual modular design

Unusually, the modular design owes praise to the architect’s nemesis – the Local Planning Authority, which enthusiastically gave a thumbs up to the blueprints, even though the 67 per cent coverage of the 16 acre site was well above the standard land density limits. The entire structure consisted of 42 individual, 24 square metre modules, suspended off 16m high masts.

Each of these masts pierced the roof structure; glazed surrounding panels giving ample natural light. Totally self-contained, the majority of the floor space was given over to parts storage complete with maintenance bays for employee training. Even the offices for regional retail and distribution staff came complete with Foster-designed furnishings. The glazed reception gave a panoramic view through 4m square sheets of armoured Pilkington glass, strung on high tensile wire.

Those peering into the ‘Gallery’ were presented with the latest Renault range at floor level, an upwards gaze revealing bare painted body shells suspended from the roof beams. When devoid of the top of the range Trente or racy Fuego (above) while used as a popular arts and social venue, wandering across the Gallery with the 1982 Car of The Year strung above your head, subliminally you never forgot where you were.

Period Renault advertising played heavily on the Grade II listed backdrops, suckering prospective Renault customers into the world of hi-tech design, purchasable in the form of talking Renault 11s with LCD instrument clusters. Such was the Centre’s draw, it even secured a cameo appearance in the Renault fans’ favourite Bond outing, View To A Kill.

Graceful, yet contemporary

The overall effect was graceful, yet contemporary – now, 25 years after its opening by the French Secretary of State for Consumer Affairs, Madame Catherine Lalumiere, it still appears contemporary. After completion in 1983 accolades and industry praise were heaped on the Foster + Partners’ design, winning both the coveted Financial Times’ ‘Architecture at work’ and Structural Steel awards.

By 2001, commercial demands had changed and Renault relocated itself to the West Midlands, the Centre becoming the ‘Spectrum’. Despite lying dormant for almost four years, it is now home to a Ford distributor and digital media manufacturer. However, those in need of a Renault architectural fix need not despair – drive to Paris and head toward L’Atelier Renault on the Champs-Élysées.

Originally purchased by Louis Renault in 1910 for his company’s Parisian base, after 1963 it became a bar come showroom. Today, along with Citroën’s rival lifestyle building (fronted with double chevron glazing on the adjacent side of the Champs-Élysées), they make a pleasant place to absorb some French automotive ambience, even if the playfulness comes from watching the beautiful Parisians pouting, shouting and strutting.

Andrew Elphick
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  1. Thank you for giving us some background on this fascinating building – which for most (though obviously not all) Swindonians has remained something of a Marmite building.

  2. Interesting to read that.

    Fine memories of Old Swindon Town.

    During the still war impoverished early 1950s when I was a small schoolboy, paying my sixpence ( 2.5 decimal pence ) for a conducted tour of the Swindon’s massive Railway Works complex. Unforgettable sights of a bygone age when manufacturing and engineering were more highly and rightly regarded in the UK.

    To see a refurbished massive King Class Locomotive newly outshopped looking as new as the day it was first built was a sight never to be forgotten as well as lesser locomotives like Halls and Manors all looking brand new.

    Then the bonus on walking back to the station for the train home. To see newly outshopped 6026 King John on station pilot and running in duties. “Jump up son” was an invitation never to be turned down… plus a slow run down to the sheds or sidings and back. That on more than one occasion on those far away non
    H&S here days.

    Youngsters today don’t know they’ze born.

    That new set up looks to be worth a visit. I was in Swindon last July and my old 620ti took part in that “Magic Roundabouts” procession of cars with body panels made nearby.

    Another fine sight no longer to be seen. The Rover parts train shuttle between Swindon and Longbridge… Up to four of these every day. Here’s one of the last such hauled by Class 66 Diesel ( Made in North America ~ Not Swindon ) with all the parts wagons in Rover Group’s corporate colours passing Gloucester on the loop. :~

  3. I might be having total brain fade but wasn’t there a press advert for the Renault 14 (now there’s a forgotten pioneering style classic…) which had a yellow one suspended in mid air with the doors open – this reminds me of that.

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