Jasper Gerard – The Sunday Times August 31, 2003
PAY attention, 007. While you are briefed on the new £1.6 billion Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), your eyes are likely to be yanked in enough directions to earn a ticking-off from M.
The new state-of-the-art spying centre, details of which are revealed this weekend, includes underground trains, smokers’ huts with heather-clad roofs, and a building the size of 17 football pitches. Construction finished earlier this month.
Some of the 4,000 staff who will start moving there next month were shown around on Friday. If the building, dubbed “the Doughnut”, was in Ian Fleming’s novels rather than the suburbs of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the writer would be accused of letting his imagination run riot.
Architects were told it should look like “a spaceship crashed into the Cotswolds”. It will modernise the task of trawling through countless phone calls and e-mails around the world to aid the fight against terrorists and the axis of evil hangers-on.
In June the National Audit Office slated the project for running vastly over budget. The computer system alone, the most powerful outside America, was more than 10 times over. Architecturally, however, the centre meets the brief: 400,000 tons of earth were removed for the 1m sq ft mini-city of steel, concrete and bulletproof glass, with a little stone from nearby Chipping Campden, perhaps to appease that most particular local, the Prince of Wales.
The armour-plated roof has been toughened to repel aircraft smaller than a 747 after concerns about a local flying school. Even brickies have gone through the same rigorous checks as paid-up spooks. “We could take no chances,” said a senior GCHQ figure. “We didn’t want a repeat of the American embassy in Moscow, which was riddled with bugs.”
An “inner core” will act like the keep of a medieval castle, a safe haven in case of attack. An electric train, like a chain of giant golf buggies, will take all packages from a nearby depot after they have passed through bomb and motion detectors. They will then be delivered at stations below “the Street”, as the thoroughfare around the ring is known. The edifice is clad in reinforced, angled glass — stronger than stone — that is easy to see out of, but almost impossible to see into.
Inside, Bond might find the offices rather touchy-feely. The spooks will hot-desk in open-plan offices conceived at the height of the dotcom boom. Loose talk is positively encouraged on the squidgy sofas, as is quiet contemplation in “cherished spaces” decorated with statues and murals. Even David Pepper, the GCHQ director, will be visible behind glass doors. The ambience contrasts with the eavesdroppers’ present troglodyte existence in poky offices.
“It was designed so people bump into each other, in total contrast to the cold war ‘need to know’ ethos,” said the source. This was confirmed by Chris Johnson, in charge of the project for the architectural firm Gensler. “The bottom dropped out of the market for cold war services. The new market is terrorism, which is all about the exchange of ideas,” he said.
Change, however, goes only so far. “I was with the director of GCHQ,” Johnson recalled, “and he was banned from the computer room because he didn’t have security clearance.”
The lifestyle theme continues in the ground-floor restaurants that spill out onto decking in the internal courtyard, the hole in the doughnut and itself bigger than the Albert Hall. The garden contains a mound for outdoor meetings, known as the “grassy knoll”, which President Kennedy admirers might think has unfortunate associations.
The knoll leads to a more traditional English garden, with hedging and benches, as well as two huts for clandestine puffs. The heather is not, apparently, a revolutionary smoke filter. It enables spies on higher floors to look out on vegetation. Johnson’s pitch is that the new GCHQ should be like a medieval fort: hard on the inside, soft inside. He also compared it to wagons in the Wild West, positioned in a protective circle.
Visitors may feel like General Custer as they go through the narrow tunnel entrance into a vast open area. “It’s meant to look dramatic,” said Johnson. “You are entering the heart of our national security, and this shows that it is very important to the country.”
Satisfying curiosity while maintaining security posed a dilemma. “They didn’t want busloads of Japanese tourists as they have at MI6,” said Johnson. But a buffer to obscure the centre from the nearby motorway was rejected because planners wanted public viewing. Houses will be built nearby, which, alarmingly for residents, are considered a “buffer”. Even Jaws couldn’t fight his way in.
Last updated 29/06/2004