Take a look at the building in the photo below. Can you see the future?
No? What about from here?
Still no? From here?
Students of architecture may recognise the building, or at least its period and style. It was built almost exactly 100 years ago for one of the large engineering concerns of which we used to have many in the west of Scotland.
In 1913 air travel was the coming Big Thing. The "unsinkable" Titanic had gone down the year before so it was obvious to all that travelling above the waves would be much safer than ploughing through them. To this end the Beardmore engineering company established the Inchinnan Airship Constructional Station, of which this rather pretty art deco confection was the administrative block.
The actual airships of course were huge things, enormous floating structures of duralumin, canvas and hydrogen and they were built in a cavernous shed sited next to our pretty office block. It’s difficult to convey the gargantuan nature of an airship: although none of them ever carried large numbers of passengers, most of them would make many modern-day aeroplanes look like Dinky toys. There’s a clue to the real size of one of them in the next two photographs.
(The little things are people!)
Although the full enormity of the craft may not be fully comprehensible until you step inside the front door of the modern extension to the original building and look up…
Hanging in the air above you is R34, the third of the four airships built by Beardmore at Inchinnan, and a craft that holds a particularly proud place in aviation history. Everyone has heard of Alcock and Brown, the first pilots to fly the Atlantic, and Charles Lindbergh, the first man to do it alone. They only went one way, west to east: the Scottish-built R34 was the first craft to fly across from east to west, and the very first to make a return journey in either direction. Only an unfortunate technical problem stopped her from beating Alcock and Brown to the ultimate prize of the first-ever crossing.
So why didn’t you notice it in the previous photographs? Because it’s not really there, just a memory of it. Look at this photo.
You can see the profile of the bottom part of the airship hull in the roof line of the new extension. What an architect with a whimsical nature and an eye for heritage has done is to incorporate a ghost from this building’s past into its restoration and extension. This airship isn’t hanging in the air, it’s propped up by several sturdy steel supports and cleverly houses the second floor of this unusual office (the only Grade A listed building in Scotland still being used for its original purpose).
The new R34 is only a full-size replica of part of the central section of the original – the end cones are missing. It does, though bring eerily to life the grandeur of Edwardian air travel and it is easy to imagine this leviathan gently bobbing in its mooring ropes. It was all much more glamorous and adventurous than today’s flights from Glasgow Airport that can be readily glimpsed from the upper floors of the building.
R34, like many airships, eventually succumbed to misfortune although she did survive a serious accident first. She finally crashed and was broken up and scrapped near her other base in Yorkshire just as the airship era was drawing to its close.
The place where she was born turned next to making aeroplanes and its final industrial life was as the Scottish manufacturing base for the India tyre company. In fact the building is now known as “India of Inchinnan” and lies on the Inchinnan Business Park, next to Glasgow Airport. In a nicely circular touch, Rolls Royce’s new manufacturing plant for jet engines lies next to the site of Beardmore’s airship shed.
If you still can’t quite imagine what an office with an airship in the roof would look like, why not go along and have a look? The building is open to the public and has quite a good café on the ground floor (named after R34) so you can sip your latté, direct your gaze upwards and marvel at the future of air travel.
Except of course you can’t, because rigid airships are very much a thing of the past. But you can still look up and see the future, because around you will be three very exciting and vital Scots IT systems and services companies who are making their mark in various industries around the world.
Kana, Getronics and Amor Group share the building, and your coffee morning will be accompanied by the gentle hum of keyboard taps and deep thinking as a lot of very clever and hard-working folk go about building the future in myriad ways. Your humble editor worked with Amor for a couple of months earlier this year and it is refreshing to be involved with an organisation that not only provides an extremely good service to its customers but is pleased to put itself out for them. Amor is not an old company but it is profitable, is growing fast and is very ambitious. And they deserve to do well.
Amor’s reach is already truly global and most of their business is furth of Scotland, making them a valuable export earner for the country. And also a very valuable ambassador, given their excellent customer relationships and excellent reputation in their target industries. Another nice circular touch is that Amor have a particular expertise in systems that help airport managements reduce the queuing time of passengers travelling through their terminals.
So, a building that 100 years ago was at the absolute forefront of travel technology is once again helping to move people through the air as quickly as possible. Only this time it's while they’re still on the ground!
PS There is a very good article on the history of the R34 here.