Sometimes you question your motivation. Why am I standing in a site-foreman’s porta-cabin clutching a hard hat and tabard? When I booked a place on a tour of One Friar Gate Square as part of the Open Doors scheme – a building industry initiative to enable public to visit buildings under construction – it was an act of opportunism. I decide to fabricate my rationale later in the hope that it would all come together.
The first thing that strikes me about FGS is that it is neither a Square nor does it reside on Friar Gate. Not wanting to start the tour on a sour note I keep these observations to myself and scan the CAD elevation diagrams on the wall as we await the arrival of final participants. What can be said of FGS is that is a 7 storey office scheme targeting small businesses which is quite timely given that the successful Friar Gate Studios across the road have this week reached a full quota of small business occupants.
There’s a line of thought that this building will cast an insensitive modern shadow over the quaint old Friar Gate buildings that adjoin it and inappropriately dominate the area. There’s another line of thinking that says it’s mostly bordering the ugly inner ring road, has some design merit and will attract the kind of small organic businesses that this side of Derby needs in the fight back against the big corporate baddy Westfield at the other end of town. For me the jury is out, for now at least.
The tour finally starts and it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be an interactive learning experience. There’s no script as such and the questions asked elicit short answers. There’s a photographer amongst our number and as we climb the levels it occurs to me that the main focus of today’s event is a publicity photo-shoot for Clegg Construction as evidenced by the attendant besuited managers. It later turns out I have been caught in one of the pictures. The cheque hasn’t arrived yet.
I ask the genial site foreman whether security is a problem here, especially given the epidemic of metal thefts in recent times. He casts me a look and insists there is no copper onsite and I wonder whether he now thinks I’ve only come along to case the joint for a copper heist. Time to shuffle off and take more photos before he has me ejected
There’s no doubt the views are of some interest to a Derbian like me because while 7 storeys may not sound like much it represents a notable protuberance in a relatively undeveloped flat city like Derby. Also of interest to me is the relationship between this building and a previous muse of mine, the former Friar Gate Station. A planned second phase of FGS development includes steps up to the wonderful Friar Gate bridge although this would clearly be dependent on development taking place on the other side of the road.
Somebody is certainly going to have some unique views once these offices are complete and one of the interesting features of the construction is that window and wall come entirely as prefabricated units. The “builders” need to be trained up on assembly technique by the unit suppliers. I put it to one of the workers that this is one big Lego kit and the building project is as much about assembly as construction. He tentatively responds “yes” with the look of somebody who has been told to put in an appearance for the managers on a Saturday morning that had formerly promised better options. There was a period of my childhood when such an occupation would have seemed like a busman’s holiday but that dream has now lost its polish. This is something I realised when re-introduced with lego recently only to discover that the creative sparks that once flew when presented with so many options had been replaced by a desire to find the instruction booklet.
Finally we ascend to the skeletal top floor and it feels like the end of some platform game in cheat mode minus the baddies. It has been interesting to note that the air conditioning and lifts are in place (the lifts are installed very early on but not enabled for safety reasons) while the rest of the building is a concrete shell without walls or windows. The view – well – in truth I’m a little disappointed. It’s still Derby but just higher up. What did I expect? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain? If the management are disappointed with the view they aren’t letting it show.
I snap wildly with the abandon of somebody who doesn’t know how to frame a photo before giving in and asking the guy with the 35mm to capture me on what used to be film. Irritatingly yet predictably he proceeds to do what all strangers do when wielding my camera and take a better photo than I would have done.
We are heading back down now and with time running out I try to find out about any historical finds that may have been unearthed during the excavation work. Apparently there was nothing but mud, which is clearly untrue given the wealth and diversity of finds that have been unearthed in neighbouring plots over the years. One suspects they weren’t looking too hard, given the delays and costs commonly associated with uncovering artefacts on a building site. One man’s historical jackpot is another man’s loss of car park revenue. And so I take solace with a final snap of the tram lines that trace a path to nowhere in the cobbled plot of land reserved for phase 2 of development
As I understand it these lines were nothing to do with the railway but were for use by a horse drawn tram along what was once known as Short Street prior to demolition when the railway was constructed. It would provide a classy touch to leave at least some of the cobbles and track on display through a glass bottomed floor when they build the next phase. I’m not holding my breath.
The morning has been surreal and yet uninformative. I’m none the wiser as to the history of the site, my appreciation of the building industry remains pretty much unchanged and the views are OK but, well, it’s Derby. Sometimes you have to be thankful for the small and unexpected things – I got to wear a hard hat!