By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

On the move

review - The Architecture of British Transport in the Twentieth Century Edited by Julian Holder and Steven Parissien. Yale University Press, 2004. 246pp. £40

The 20th century was pre-eminently the century of travel. People could move faster than ever by plane, and with greater independence and freedom by car. However, taken as a whole, these momentous changes have left only a meagre architectural legacy.

Why has the architecture of modern transport been so disappointing, especially in Britain? This collection of nine essays provides more than enough ammunition to confront that paradox, though few of the authors seem prepared to address it.

For a start, most transport buildings owe their existence to a disagreeable necessity and generally they reflect that fact. People on the move want to hurry on, only stopping for as long as it takes to buy a ticket or fill the petrol tank. We expect to absorb the experience of a theatre, a church or a sports arena, but a railway station or motorway service area is counted a success the more quickly we can get in and out. The architecture is only there to help speed us on our way.

Many of the buildings discussed in these essays were designed for nothing more than the minimum functional requirement of people on the move, and no greater claims should be made for them. For instance, most inter-war bus stations - the subject of Julian Holder's essay - were little more than utilitarian, designed primarily for buses rather than people; and the early motorway servicestations, diligently described by David Lawrence, were as mediocre as the catering they provided. Few transport designers and architects had the opportunity to think what such buildings meant for the experience of travel.

The great exception was, of course, the work of Frank Pick and Charles Holden from 1923 onwards, first for the Underground Group and then for the London Passenger Transport Board. As Susie Barson explains, together they forged an architectural and design idiom for London Transport based on efficiency, but aiming also to project the pleasure of travel. Their far-reaching policy helped to give the metropolis a collective identity, expanding people's sense of how they might use and enjoy the city. The selection of Holden's stations that appears in the textbooks - above all, Sudbury Town, Turnpike Lane and Arnos Grove - should always be considered as part of that wider campaign.

What Pick and Holden did was ultimately made possible as the work of a public corporation. In theory, the nationalised British Railways might have achieved a similar sense of coordinated design, but in her essay Elain Harwood admits that, after 15 years or so, only three major stations had been built, among them Coventry and Manchester Oxford Road.

As for airports, there was a flurry of interesting small projects in the 1930s, and even an attempt at coordination by the RIBA, but, with the exception of Stansted and Southampton, there is not much to be proud of in recent years. As Colin Davies says: 'If architecture is the ordering of space for the enjoyment of human beings then most airports, and especially British airports, hardly qualify as architecture at all.' What is missing here is a considered summary of how transport politics have influenced architecture, plus a review of how transport buildings have affected the shaping of cities. Logically, both of these topics would have led to an assessment of the Jubilee Line project, which barely gets a mention. Treasury mandarins still remember that project with dismay, while, for everyone else, it is seen as the bright note on which the century ended.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters