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the underground man

He might be plain John Smith back home in the UK, but his work in transport architecture in the Far East is anything but. Here he explains why he is so frustrated with the UK system of funding and planning by austin williams. photograph by david richards

When I said that I was going to interview an architect called John Smith, they did not believe me. Normally a name associated with anonymity, this John Smith operates from an office in London's Pimlico that you would not know existed unless it was pointed out to you.

You go across a three-lane thoroughfare, negotiating a pedestrian-unfriendly junction, underneath an old warehouse archway, down a narrow alleyway, along a corridor, then suddenly into a bustling office fronting onto the Thames. This is certainly a surprising backwater. The decor is municipal exposed concrete and brown brickwork - but the view is priceless.

I have come to find out about Smith's work on passenger transit systems in the Far East, and am 90 minutes late for our appointment after being stranded on the Piccadilly tube line in the not-so-far north.

If I needed something to renew my faith in public transport, this was it: scheme after scheme of well-thought-out, integrated and very expensive (and expansive) feasibility studies and schemes actually being built.

Smith started his architectural career with Conran Roche and quickly progressed to a job with Richard Rogers in the late '80s.

He worked in the project team for the Marseille masterplan and was appointed to the position of project architect in Rogers' team working on the city's airport, charged with designing for an increased throughput from three million to 10 million.

Smith is modest about his rise and responsibilities, saying that Rogers' office 'was, and is, packed with talented designers - people that you've never heard of but who have made incredible design contributions to architecture worldwide. I was fortunate that within our team, they considered that I also had the ability to manage.'

In 1991 he moved to Alsop Lyall and Stormer, where he was project architect for the North Greenwich tube station and which fired his interest and led to his accumulation of an encyclopedic knowledge of station design and logistics.

For Smith, the fact that North Greenwich station has only just been completed, and CrossRail has not started, is symptomatic of the drawn-out processes of transport infrastructure in the UK.

He alludes to his interest in seventeenth century French architecture when he says that them, as now, the 'grands projets' would have been driven through by the establishment. Even though he is circumspect about the 'British way of doing things', he is concerned that the four-year planning enquiry into Heathrow's Terminal 5 is getting ridiculous.

'The two major problems in this country, are funding and planning, ' he says. 'By planning, I mean the process rather than the people. When I started work on CrossRail, the planning scrutiny stage received more than 300 objections from organisations, individuals and businesses, as well as a blanket objection on behalf of 'the people of the USA'', an objection lodged because some part of the line had been proposed to run near the American Embassy.'

As opposed to the Terminal 5 fiasco, Smith considers that the CrossRail project has not been dogged by planning issues, but rather by a 'lack of funding and a lack of co-ordination across the system' (since CrossRail impinges on travel patterns and operating companies outside the immediate London area).

In fact, Smith says that by 1994 a set of feasible working drawings existed for CrossRail. He is 'optimistic' that the scheme will proceed but is worried that the 'i-words' - infrastructure and investment - are dirty words in Britain, and that, traditionally, we have a 'sticking plaster' approach to public transport issues.

His experience as project architect for the Paddington Station CrossRail link with Alsop and Stormer honed his expertise in transport buildings in general, and underground links in particular. Having benefited from the learning curve of the Jubilee Line projects, he knew his way around the approvals processes and technical niceties. This freed up the possibility for 'good architecture to arise'.

Smith is committed to having transport architecture rise above the purely functional. 'A lot of transport architecture is dominated by civil engineering concerns, ' he says. 'The architect must make sure that he doesn't just tag along behind, but contributes as part of the team.'

He adds: 'We were very fortunate in that we were allowed the room to create good public spaces, with the benefit of a team that included a visionary client and design manager.' For Smith, teamworking and spatial delight are the fundamental objectives of transport architecture.

With the writing on the wall for CrossRail, he set up on his own in 1994 and found to his dismay that 'whatever my track record with past firms, it counted for nothing when I was on my own'.

To secure credibility, Smith amalgamated his business with Opus, a company formally known as the New Zealand public works department, and now owned by Renong, Malaysia's biggest private corporation. This gave him significant back-up; even so, he spent the next three years doing 'bread and butter' residential and domestic schemes, and lecturing in architecture and design at the Royal College of Art.

His big break came when a letter of recommendation which had been sent to Hong Kong's Mass Transit Rail System (MTRC) three years earlier, was followed up.

A rigorous selection process concluded with his firm being given a 'term consultancy' (reserved approval status), meaning that he can be called up at any time. Two commissions - one a redesign for a MTRC city centre underground station; the other for a feasibility study for the Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation - came in as many weeks and the work is still coming in.

Currently on the drawing board are three inner city underground stations and the Chinese/Hong Kong rail border crossing, to cater for 250, 000 people a day.

With schemes like this making a major contribution to the mobility and public utility of cities on the other side of the world, it is strange that Smith has retained his anonymity.Maybe, if there is any justice, we will be hearing more from him closer to home in the near future.

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