As traffic thunders along the A40 Westway into Central London, most drivers won't notice the unconventional grey building to their left as they pass the Paddington Basin. An imposing elliptical structure hewed from concrete, its moody exterior appearance nevertheless betrays its purpose. Inside is a fabulous hub of colour and creativity: the home of Nissan Design Europe, a state-of-the art automotive design studio and the birthplace of some of Nissan's most iconic cars - including two generations of the Nissan Qashqai, the Nissan JUKE and the Nissan Ariya Concept.
The building itself - fondly known as The Rotunda - has always had a vibrant history despite its grey aesthetic. Designed in the 60s by architect Paul Hamilton, it epitomises the Brutalist style and today enjoys "listed" status thanks to its architectural significance. Originally it served as a maintenance depot for vehicles owned by British Rail, but by the late 80s, The Rotunda was nothing but a cavernous shell – with its style of modernist architecture having fallen completely out of fashion.
Yet out of abandonment came opportunity. The Rotunda's smooth walls became a blank canvas for graffiti artists, while its vast and vaulting interior spaces regularly hosted rave parties in the 90s. At the same time, London was asserting itself as one of the creative capitals of the world. So when Nissan Design Europe - which was founded in 1992 in Munich before merging with Nissan's existing technical centre in Cranfield, Bedfordshire - needed a new home in the early 2000s, the Rotunda's bold personality and city location made it the perfect choice. After a complete transformation over several months, it finally opened its doors as Nissan's new hub of European design in 2003.
Today, the Rotunda's interior is artfully sculpted with soft, muted hues framing airy, open spaces. This reflects the Japanese design concept of "wa" - the harmonious coexistence of two seemingly contradictory concepts: "stillness" and "motion." Interior layouts make careful use of the Grade II listed building's original architecture, while below the clean surfaces, all the graffiti still remains: covered but untouched. As a result, the energy that once filled its concrete halls still permeates, fuelling the creativity that takes place inside. This spans activity across clay modelling rooms, a colour and trim gallery, and the all-important design studio where the team sketches and draws both on paper and digitally, as well as using virtual reality tools for collaboration across time zones.
It's easy to see how working in a building with such a bold and unapologetic architecture might diffuse into the creative process, and even subtly influence the design of our cars. Take the new Nissan JUKE for example. "The new JUKE has very strong personality that people remember" says Carine Giachetti, Material and Finish Designer, Nissan Design Europe. "[It has] this attitude of sort of rebel child in the family!" Nissan Design Europe's location in Central London also serves to fuel inspiration, as explained Lesley Busby, Colour Manager at Nissan Design Europe. "Subconsciously, you're [always] absorbing what's going on around you," she says. [London is] a great source of going to the movies, going to the theatre, exhibitions, all of those things are influencing us."
Mathew Weaver, Vice President, Nissan Design Europe, certainly agrees. "I feel lucky to work in an environment which is itself an inspiring example of product design. The forms and details within are a daily reminder to us all of the importance of working hard to create design which combines form and function so beautifully," he reflects. "Being in the heart of London, one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities in the world, gives us a unique opportunity for us to absorb the latest tastes in art, fashion and architecture. I truly believe that our work is all the better and more compelling as a result of our location in central London."
These synergies ensure that the next generations of Nissan models are forever looking forwards to new horizons. Like the building itself, the new Nissan Ariya – with its roots at Nissan Design Europe - is a masterclass in bold design, marrying sharp lines with harmonious spaces in the interior. To take an even closer look behind the brutalist walls of Nissan Design Europe, and to discover how the iconic Ariya was conceptualised within – Nissan's premium digital zine Horizon reveals some more of its secrets, and gives flavour of what day-to-day life is like inside…
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