Back in January, we reported on a move to list the former IBM Havant Plant buildings at what is now the Langstone Technology Park. If such a move is to bear fruit, it can’t come soon enough. Havant Borough Council’s Development Consultation Forum #48 will consider the future of this site on Tuesday 21st May at 6:00pm and the author of this piece plans to be there..
The first Havant IBM manufacturing building in Solent Road has long since disappeared, demolished to make way for Havant’s first ‘out of town’ Tesco store. The building which replaced it was the long, elegant structure shown above, designed by Arup Associates and winner of the prestigious Financial Times Award for Industrial Architecture in 1972.
The IBM Information Services Ltd. building constructed on the same site, linked to the plant building by a glazed corridor and reception area, was an integral part of Arup’s design. Known internally as the Respond building, an IBM acronym that escapes me now, the building resembled a record deck with a concrete rendered lower part concealing a computer centre and a dark glazed upper part containing offices.
The main car park was just to the south of the manufacturing plant and also included a number of temporary buildings which provided the home for two groups of systems and application programmers, one looking after the IBM manufacturing information systems, the other developing the systems which ran IBM’s World Trade business operations. To the south of those temporary buildings, past the original car park, the remainder of the land down to the shore remained undeveloped, save for playing fields and the IBM staff club on Southmoor Lane.
In 1977, the new IBM UK Headquarters offices opened at North Harbour, with staff relocating from the Havant temporary buildings, the original London headquarters building in Chiswick and the single storey glazed temporary building in Northern Road, Cosham.
The Havant temporary buildings were bulldozed to make way for the second phase of the Langstone site development. The old London HQ site still exists, renamed Chiswick Tower and now home to the British Standards Institute, while the young Norman Foster’s ‘temporary’ glass building at Northern Road, Cosham, was eventually awarded Grade 2 listing and has for some years been occupied by HMRC as ‘Lynx House’.
Going back to the two original buildings at Langstone, it’s worth understanding how important this site was, both to IBM and to Havant. At the time of their construction in the early 1970s, Havant was already home to a number of global manufacturing brands, Kenwood, Colt, Lewmar and Goodmans being four other significant global brands. Minimodels, the manufacturer of Scalextric was moving out of its Leigh Park site but the Havant area was still a hotbed of technical development and manufacturing with a proven quality workforce. The existence of these brands in Havant were influential in IBM’s decision to build such an important manufacturing and development site on the Langstone site.
A little background is probably appropriate…
By the early 1970s, the IBM world was divided into two parts of roughly equal business size, IBM US and IBM World Trade, the main company product line being the IBM 370 series family of mainframe computers. Now dwarfed by the technology in our homes and pockets, these huge machines were the state-of-the-art computers of their day and were used to run the business of many of the Fortune 500 companies.
The US arm of the IBM corporation produced all of the component parts of these systems for the North American market in a number of plants across the United States, each plant concentrating on a specific component.
For the World Trade division however, the manufacturing plants were spread around the world with the new Havant plant site building the Central Processing Units (CPUs). Other plants, notably in Sweden, Germany, France and Italy, but also in Japan, Mexico and Argentina produced peripheral components all of which were brought into the Havant Plant building for ‘systems integration’ before final shipment of the complete, tested system to the customer site.
In the 1970s, that long flat building was divided into three parts. At one end was the machine room, housing the computers that managed the manufacturing process while at the other end was a clean room where semiconductor chips were developed and manufactured. The bulk of the floor space in between was taken up by the manufacturing space for the ‘big blue boxes’, the CPUs. Hanging from the ceiling above each of the half dozen or so being constructed at any one time was a board with the name of the customer for whom that system was being built.
To those of us who witnessed this manufacturing operation ‘from the inside’, it was an impressive spectacle, a demonstration of the power and reach of the IBM corporation as a once genuinely global business.
So should the site be protected by listing?
The original buildings date from a time when Havant peaked as a globally acknowledged centre of high tech manufacturing industry. It could also be said that the time also marked the point at which IBM’s dominance of the global computer systems market peaked.
By the 1990’s, the IBM Havant plant was reduced to the development and manufacture of computer disk drives. In 1993, with UK manufacturing costs being too high, the IBM Corporation let the Havant plant go to a management buyout and the site became the home of Xyratex.
As soon as they were contractually free to do so, IBM opened a new low cost disk plant in Hungary in direct competition with Xyratex. The ethical principles espoused by Thomas Watson for IBM had been diluted and devalued by the 1990s. The creaking IBM printer business was similarly sold off in a leveraged buyout, forming the Lexmark company. Once again, when contractual constraints were lifted, IBM re-launched its own printer division using low cost manufacturing.
I’ve not seen inside the Havant Plant building since the late ’70s but feel sure that the overall architecture of the space must still be sound. As a large exhibition hall with superb transport links, it might be preserved by a far sighted owner.
But then the progressive vandalism of the last forty years of insensitive planning and development might just have rendered it beyond recovery…
I might also argue that IBM actually started the rot here by selling off its own global property portfolio in order to keep balancing the books. The relentless increase in performance of computer hardware predicted by Moores Law , coupled with the commoditisation of the computer hardware business, necessitated desperate action to keep the stockholders happy.
In the sixties and seventies, the IBM UK property portfolio displayed some of the finest architecture of the day, the Langstone site just one example. Nowadays, there’s only one site in the UK still owned by IBM, and that’s Hursley. The reason? IBM UK never owned it, it’s the property of the US company. Even that other Norman Foster building on the South Bank is now owned by Alan Sugar.
(I should point out that the rambling views in this post are personal observations by the editor and are not necessarily the views of the HCS Committee. Bob C. )