Excellent Evolution at London Docklands
The rest, as they say, is history. The Malaysian businessman provided the initial capital and now owns more than 40 percent of ExCeL.
The Design Brief
The project began in 1990 as a competition from the AEO to identify a London site for a new international exhibition center, which London-based Moxley Architects, then Moxley Jenner and Partners, won.
Iain Shearer, chief executive of ExCeL said: "We wanted total convenience for our exhibitors and visitors, so that after a hectic day they will be able to walk out of an event and straight into one of the many hotels that will be on offer."
Shearer is no stranger to "brave new worlds." When the Berlin Wall came down, he moved in to create Brandenburg Park, the largest business development in former East Germany.
The AEO was heavily involved with ExCeL's design process, working closely with Moxley Architects. They wanted the overall design to be flexible without seeming temporary and to be functional while providing an architectural landmark.
Because this was a "brownfield" site generated from derelict industrial dockland, it provided the designers with a virtually blank canvas, albeit slightly soiled. This enabled them to create their concept with few inhibitions.
The spacious riverfront site provided a natural solution to some future-proofing issues such as the practicalities of how boats would arrive on site, particularly for the prestigious London Boat Show. Good transport facilities from central London and over 5,000 parking spaces provided easy access to the site, a key factor in any public arena.
The visually attractive system of external roof hangers enabled Moxley to create vast column-free halls, providing exhibitors with maximum flexibility. The exposed inclined masts and their tie structures support the 285-foot (87-meter) steel trusses and form the building's main architectural feature.
The hub of the three-story project design is two twin exhibition halls, each 1200 feet (375 meters) long. The exhibition arena is on the middle floor, easily accessible by services below.
Each compartment of the hall is designed to support the weight of a tank, and vehicles can be driven into the hall from the southern side of the complex.
What makes the ExCeL Centre unique is the 96-foot- (29-meter-) wide internal "boulevard," which acts as the central artery running through the building and separates the main halls. The intention was to create a central street with its own shops, bars, restaurants, and business services that serve both north and south exhibition halls.
This street acts as a focal point of all social and business activity within the center. Indeed, entering the building from its glass pyramid reception area, the first impression is of a modern-day shopping complex rather than a vast exhibition hall.
Paved with 3/4-inch (20-milimeter) thick Sardinian Granite, this main circulation boulevard extends the full length of the building. Solar blinds provide it with natural daylight.
Fundamental to the operation of ExceL is the use of acoustically absorptive moveable walls. Suspended from a network of track fixed to the bottom boom of the main roof trusses, these unique walls provide the necessary visual and acoustic separation between exhibitions.
The halls are linked to breakout spaces to allow for private functions and offices, which extend the full length of the north and south elevations on the external walls. Conference and public facilities are at the upper levels.
Materials and Technology
The white masonry has been given two very different surface finishes. There is a polished monolithic feel to all openings on the lower wall where the flow of visitors makes toughness important. At the upper level, by contrast, the sand-blasted finish gives a much softer feel while retaining a sparkle from the exposed quartz aggregate.
Peter Thorpe of Moxley Architects explained that they "wished to continue the white aesthetic of the exterior into the boulevard where the neutral backdrop would give the organizers complete freedom to establish individual identities for their exhibitions."
The metal ceilings appear to be solid, but the open cell system is partially transparent from certain angles, thus providing a visually striking and textured effect.
ExCeL, with the help of the U.S. consulting firm EDS, is the world's first "smart" exhibition venue with a totally integrated communications infrastructure. This includes e-services, kiosks, interactive voice and data exchange, media and business centers, and satellite links.
Access to ExCeL from the Custom House railway station is via a covered pedestrian bridge, which provides the first impression of ExCeL for many visitors. Therefore it is an important element within the overall design.
The canopy was designed both to provide protection from the elements and to allow diffuse sunlight and air to penetrate to the exhibition visitors passing beneath.
The roof is an off-white translucent membrane spanning gently curving rafters. The canopy structure is made from white-painted tubular steel. Diagonal stainless steel tension cables provide longitudinal and lateral stability.
The other main link to the center is the Lifschutz Davidson-designed high-level transporter bridge connecting ExCeL with the newly built residential areas on the south side of the river.
The bridge is modeled on the transporter bridges at Newport in Wales and Middlesborough in the north of England. Lifts are provided to the upper pedestrian deck, which provides stunning views of ExCeL's graceful colonnade and Moxley's eye-catching system of external roof hangers.
From there, one can also see the retained dockland cranes along the waterfront and a Japanese-style landscape, including water fountains and sculptures, which provide a Zen-like approach to the ExCeL pyramid entrance.
The ExCeL Exhibition and Conference Centre, with the capacity of up to 47,000 people, is being built in three phases. Events already booked are expected to attract over two million visitors.
The first phase, completed in November 2000, consists of 345,000 square feet (32,000 square meters) of exhibition space and a 1000-seat auditorium. This was followed by a second phase to the east, a virtual mirror of the first, completed in February 2001.
The third and final phase is planned for completion in late 2003, which will virtually double the size again. Construction will start late in 2001, and one of the options is to include a massive 130,000-square-foot (12,000-square-meter) auditorium to seat 6,000 people, making it the largest venue in London.
Along with the restored warehouses, the complex maintains links with its heritage, while reflecting its determination to be at the gravitational helm of attracting businesses from west and central London to the east.
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore.