By the late 1970s, the Convent of the Good Shepherd was forced to leave Valley End.
They left behind a large site. There were various ideas for the future of the estate. It should be a training college and treatment centre for chiropractioners; it could be a conference centre and hotel. Maybe the new owners could simply modify the existing laundry buildings.
But in 1982 it was suggested that the existing convent buildings should be demolished, except for the clock tower, and new office headquarters should be erected. BOC were interested.
BOC Windlesham from the air. The building is actually within Chobham – but the postal address is Windlesham.
BOC was founded in 1886 by Arthur and Leon Brin, and was originally called Brin’s Oxygen Company. In 1906 the name was altered to the British Oxygen Company, or BOC.
It was a leading company in its field.
“The BOC Group, perhaps better known to most people in the UK, as British Oxygen, started trading in Britain over a century ago – they now operate in four continents. Their primary business, the production of gases, is essential in many of the industries that contribute to the quality of our daily lives: in the manufacture of cars, steel and microchips; heat-retaining coatings for glass in construction; cold store transport for fresh flowers and foodstuffs; health care and environment, anaesthetics for hospital operating theatres, insecticides and combating water pollution. In many fields, BOC are at the forefront of the technological race.” (HP. 1988)
By 1982 BOC was based in Hammersmith, and looking for new premises. They chose to build on the site of the convent.
The building is said to represent a diagram of an oxygen molecule. The clue may be in the use of hexagons for the main building and the courtyard. They are six sided – and so are snowflakes. “The molecules in ice crystals join to one another in a hexagonal structure, an arrangement which allows water molecules – each with one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms – to form together in the most efficient way”. (Met. Office.) BOC dealt with cryogenics, the science of freezing. The way in which the hubs are linked by walkways is also reminiscent of stick and ball models of molecules.
A BOC booklet explained the ideas behind the design. “Underlying the design were two key concepts. The first was that the building should be low-level to blend with its surroundings. The second was that it should have a central hub with radiating wings, the wings to be connected to each other by overhead walk-ways. These features would ensure easy communications within the building while avoiding through-traffic in office wings.
“Another design challenge was to allow the building to follow the contours of the land without looking multi-level. This was achieved by stepping the wings were they intersect.”
The architects were GMW Partnership, who also dealt with the interior design. Wimpey Major Projects were the building contractors. The Ove Arup Partnership were the consulting engineers. Gardiner and Theobald were the quantity surveyors.
In 1985, The BOC Group moved into their new headquarters.
It is a huge building, but less obtrusive than the convent had been.
“BOC doesn’t impinge on the area. The convent was enormous. In fact with BOC buying the site, the property is lower than it was when it was a laundry. It was more or less an oblong three-storey block, so there must have been dormitories in that.” (Ann Wolfe.)
The only parts of the convent that remained were the clock tower, and the graveyard.
The interior is notable for the use of curved surfaces. The support structures are outside, leaving the interior uncluttered. It is striking because of the creative use of glass; even the walls and roofs of the wings are glazed.
The building rapidly became a landmark, and in 1988 when local people were invited inside to visit it, they were fascinated.
“On the approach road to Windlesham, this very attractive building has been a headturner for the last three years. It was designed with the help of computers and input from the staff themselves. To be on the inside, strolling along the luxuriously carpeted corridors, gazing from curving glass-roofed walkways, with treetops at eye level is a fabulously futuristic experience. Style and decor are modern but not angular, in keeping with the architecture. The furniture and fittings are discreetly expensive, extremely well designed and (as at least one ten year old visitor can testify) very comfortable. Although we did wonder how the Personnel Director tolerates using such an extraordinarily squeaky chair!” (HP.)
The building was set in grounds of fifty acres, but only ten acres were actually developed. The rest of the ground was landscaped. The convent had filled in the lake of Highams, but BOC dug two new ponds.
“It is a working environment where the beauty of colour, line and form cannot be ignored. To work in such offices set in forty acres of natural parkland keeps morale high for the 220 BOC employees, half of whom moved from the very old Hammersmith building. At an approximate total cost of £20 million, BOC feel they have got something of a bargain.” (HP.)
The building held a collection of art, including works commissioned especially for this site. An art consultant, Marian Goodman, had been appointed. Gerhard Richter painted six pictures, there were murals by Sol LeWitt, sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, and collages by Giulio Paolini. They also had work by David Hockney. The impact was stunning.
“Basic colour schemes of muted natural shades are of course exactly the right foil for the valuable collection of international art: large canvasses of vibrant oils, miniature water colours, tapestries, pen and ink studies, interior and exterior statuary, sculpture and bronzes.”(HP)
The building was amazing, and the surroundings beautiful. It must have been an amazing place to work in.
Kamkorp is part of the Frazer-Nash group, and they deal with the design and technology of electric vehicles. They intend to rename the site Kamkorp Park. The plans are controversial but their application was approved by Surrey Heath.
It will be a new stage in the story of this historic and beautiful place.
All photographs by kind permission of BOC UK.
With many thanks to Helen Perbet and the Windlesham Magazine for quotes from “By Kind Invitation.. by HP” (Helen Perbet.) First published in the Windlesham Magazine, Sept. 1988.
“Windlesham” BOC c.1985.
With thanks to Ann Wolfe.
With thanks to Mary Bennett for information.