Heritage lobby mourns quality of transport building
Introducing 'Destination Anywhere' - a symposium on the 'Architecture of British Transport in the Twentieth Century' last week, co-organiser Steven Parissien claimed that the topic is a neglected one. On the face of it this is surprising given the amount that has been written on key aspects of the subject, but in fact we were treated throughout the day to enough surprises to justify both this conference and the forthcoming book of the same name.
However, the constant theme of the day was the generally low architectural quality of the subject matter. With very few exceptions, the development of new transport technologies for rail, road and air travel (the three areas covered by the conference), were not accompanied by architectural statements that even came close to conveying the excitement of travel in the twentieth century.
More surprising was the tendency of some of the speakers to deal in ideas that were as old as the buildings they talked about. Gavin Stamp commenced with pictures of steam engines and the remark that we should start with trains, as they are 'the best things you'll see'. His argument that railway architecture after 1900 was mediocre in this country, and that the 'baton had crossed the channel' seemed very close in spirit to Pevsner's famous pronouncement in An Outline of European Architecture that 'For the first forty years of our century, no British name need here be mentioned'. Of course one of the few building programmes to escape Pevsner's censure was the underground architecture of Frank Pick and Charles Holden, and this was duly celebrated by Susie Barson of English Heritage, who saw this collaboration of like-minded men as representing the zeitgeist of the inter-war period. Both speakers were making valid judgements on their own terms, but perhaps the mistake is to see architecture in isolation from other kinds of design practice. The railways were often pioneering in their attitudes to design standardisation, for instance, but their efforts were focused on operating trains faster and more efficiently, rather than static buildings.
It seems the new technologies of flying were generally served better by architects, who as Neil Bingham observed in his paper on inter-war airports, were often fliers themselves. Pioneering practices such as Norman & Dawbarn (pilot and architect respectively) and Hening and Chitty were eager to explore the expressive potential of buildings designed to service air travel, although more often than not this resulted in rather literal interpretations of planes or birds. Colin Davies followed with a fascinating account of Norman Foster's work at Stansted, Hong Kong and Luton. On a day dominated by conservation-minded speakers, he is to be congratulated for daring to suggest that the only logical future for Heathrow was to tear it down and start again.
Defining the architecture of the motor car is not an easy business, although David Jermiah showed us what an extraordinary range of garages, petrol pumps and showrooms were built to service the early motorists, while David Lawrence took us to what seemed like every motorway service station in Britain. He quite rightly observed that most people hate these buildings and that the only technique devised to entice us into them is the threat of impending destruction with the ubiquitous reminder: 'Tiredness can Kill - Take a Break'. A relentless and unedited cataloguing of examples can also lead to terminal fatigue, and it is important that as this project develops, interpretation and ideas are applied to the process of empirical research. However, co-editor Julian Holder's thoughtful final paper on the way social and economic change fuelled the early motor bus boom suggests that the book that follows will make a very useful contribution to our understanding of British architecture of the last century.