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Atkins Skylon Interview

With proposals for Skylon now seemingly becoming more and more concrete with each passing day, Skyscrapernews had a chat with Hayden Nuttall of Atkins (WS) who is leading the engineering side of the attempts to rebuild this historic structure.

Skyscrapernews.com - First of all I was wondering about the history of Skylon, we have had a lot of attempts in the past to rebuild it every so often it seems people are bringing up a new proposal what makes this one different?

Hayden Nuttall - To be honest, I haven't heard of people in the past trying to recreate it but they maybe have? I think this time it's the people behind it. Firstly Jack Pringle ex-president of RIBA who has be charged to recreate it by the Royal Academy.

With Pringle, Brandon and his engineers I think we have the right people to get this job done, we are also coming close to the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain and so now would seem a very good time to do it and also we are coming close to the Olympics so I think now is the time.

Skyscrapernews.com - Yes it's very symbolic but obviously it was a structure that captured peoples imagination wasn't it? I was speaking to my Dad and he actually went to the Festival of Britain and remembers seeing it as a young boy. Obviously we have lots of iconic structures in London that get demolished all the time so why does Skylon have a lasting impact compared to these other things?

Hayden Nuttall - I think to be honest it was because it was so ahead of its time, there had never been anything like Skylon possibly anywhere, certainly not in the U.K and it was in a prominent position and at that time the London skyline was a lot lower than it is now and it was created to be a beacon, a kind of a gateway to the Festival of Britain and so I think people were drawn to it and it was so high they weren't used to seeing things this big.

It was very, very beautiful and I think one of its best assets was it seemed to defy gravity. People couldn't work out how it stood up and most people thought perhaps it shouldn't and was a magic trick but in fact it was just a great illusion pulled off with maths and physics.

Skyscrapernews.com - You've just launched the website and on it you have a vote and its got lots of different places. To me at least, the building resonates with a certain place so when you think of Skylon you think of the South Bank so I assume you would build it there but do you actually have a site?

Hayden Nuttall - Well the position we are in at the moment is that we haven't yet decided on a location, we haven't secured a site. Most people think and for good reason that it should go back to its home which is the South Bank but there are other locations as well we haven't concluded any negotiations with anybody and what we thought we would do was via a website get a public vote see where they thought it should go.

The Festival of Britain was sometimes called a tonic for the nation so perhaps the nation should decide where it goes, the South Bank is the natural home but there are other places it could go to.

Skyscrapernews.com - You've got your hands on the original plans now haven't you? I was talking to some of the Euston Arch people and they expected the arch to be granite but when they found the remains it was actually grit-stone. Looking at these plans now have you seen anything that surprised you?

Hayden Nuttall - No, not really. The original plans live with Jack Pringle. Jack Pringle I think first worked for the practice who designed it, and then at some point bought the practice and therefore I guess with the practice came the original plans and archive.

The original drawings are quite fantastic, the only thing that surprised me was how much detail is there that you cant see now how the structural frame came together even though perhaps you couldn't see it, it was almost classed in away that people that well it was Felix Samuel that was the engineer and architect they put it together in such a way that you expect everything was exposed they gave it the same care and attention and this is evident from the details.

It's all beautifully done, and of course, most of it was concealed by the cladding that covered the Skylon body. So I think the biggest surprise for me was that it was done with such love and care and attention ands it didn't seem to matter to the engineers which bits would be seen and which wouldn't all had equal finesse in the detailing.

Skyscrapernews.com - I understand it had a really short shelf life. Obviously you hear all this stuff about it being demolished because it was a socialist symbol but the design life was only something like two to three years. I imagine you are going to reengineering it so it stands a lot longer.

Hayden Nuttall - Well it is our stated intention that the rebuilt Skylon will have a very long life of 60-100 years, that kind of region. There is no reason it should deteriorate over time if we design it properly so we want a long shelf life, but you are right the original only was thought to last for a couple of years and we will have to face the challenges of making it last up to 50 times longer.

Obviously it will be exposed to much more severe windstorms so the wind loads are much, much greater we will have to deal with a phenomenon called fatigue where things are pushed backwards and forwards in the wind. It does tend to fade the material over time a bit like a paper clip.

Skyscrapernews.com - Perhaps you could explain in very simple terms how it stands up?

Hayden Nuttall - That's asking me to give away the magic trick! I can do that it fairly easily as the way it works is fairly similar to a tightrope walker.

If you can imagine the body of the Skylon is the tight-rope walker so first of all we have the two dimensions body of Skylon or the body of a tightrope walker.

Now to stop the tightrope walker falling off his tightrope, he might use a balancing pole and what they've done with the Skylon which has tethered the upper part of it back down to the ends of the tightrope that would then stop it falling in two dimensions left to right.

There's a third set of cable perpendicular to them that stop it falling backwards and forwards and that's basically the principle of it so it balances on the bottom set of the cables and its stopped from moving rotating left or right or backwards or forwards by the upper part of the body being tethered to the end of the tight rope cables.

So quite a simple principle but very effective another analogy might be you know the old fashioned two man tents and a set of guy ropes? Once you have the guy ropes in that post is solid and that's the same principle.

Skyscrapernews.com - Yes, I always thought of it as a tent personally with the tension from the ropes supporting the central area. Have you talked to the planning authorities in London about actually building it?

Hayden Nuttall - We haven't had formal discussions with any planning authority yet simply because we haven't secured a site yet. We are expecting that many, many places will want to have the Skylon in their city or town but until we agreed on a site there's little point in talking to the planning authorities and that's why we haven't.

Skyscrapernews.com - So just to sum up, you're hoping to get it finished for 2012 for the Olympics.

Hayden Nuttall - 2011 is what we want to build it for because that's the 60th anniversary but also happens to be for the Olympics to but we want to be done for 2011.

What we are starting to get is expressions of interest from materials suppliers contractors etc who have got so wrapped up with this story that they are offering their services free of charge and another thing that's worth pointing out a lot of people were inspired by the original Skylon engineers and architects.

Lots of the very, very famous architects like Foster, Grimshaw and Richard Rogers all were inspired by the Skylon and lots of engineers too. What we're hoping is that young people will go into engineering and architecture because our industry is facing a skills shortage and its thought it could get worse so projects like this I think will be good for inspiring the next generation of architects and engineers

Skyscrapernews.com - Yeah, it is a very inspiring structure. Thanks for talking to us.

If you want to check out the Skylon website and vote for the location of the building yourself, you can do so by visiting http://www.voteforskylon.com/

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Skylon

Skylon
Skylon on the South Bank
Skylon on the South Bank
The original Skylon
The original Skylon
The bottom of the main body
The bottom of the main body
The structural interior
The structural interior