Transport, Engineering and Architecture By Hugh Collis. Laurence King, 2003. 240pp. £50
This book sets out to document the state of transportation architecture in the past 30 years or so, but is a thinly veiled monograph of Arup, writes Pieter Peipendorf. It was Ove Arup himself, we are told on page eight, who was one of the first designers of the modern era to recognise the value of synergy between architects and engineers, 'breaking with the post-war 'culture of mediocrity' in transport architecture, where engineers were concerned mainly with cost and speed of construction, and architects produced utilitarian and, in many ways, uninspiring buildings'. The book, therefore, takes the opportunity to explore the past few decades, during which time, the thesis goes, the drift towards unimaginative design was halted.
The architects'credits for each scheme are tucked away at the back of the book, so as not to detract, it seems, from the engineering.Not, unfortunately, the most synergetic relationship between the two professions that was promised in the opening chapter.So in the St Pancras chapter, the architecture barely gets a look in.The St Pancras proposals are discussed in some depth, and the complex story of the logistics and complexity of the scheme appears, to the author, to excuse the fact that there is little to be said for the architecture.Mind you, the images are early stage renderings and the logistics are truly fascinating, but the chapters are too short to convey the whole story.The book is neither one thing or another.
There are some great schemes to show how 'design', in its broadest sense, has become an acceptable feature of the construction process - especially noticeable in infrastructure projects - where the benefits of what might otherwise have been considered additional, costly or 'unnecessary'design flourishes have become the norm. Designs for Chek Lap Kok or the CargoLifter Airship Hangar, for example, are breathtaking in their scale, but also in their aesthetic considerations.
The case studies are a mixture of scales.Hanover Light Rail Stations, designed for the hosting of the World Expo in 2000, for example, are no more than bus shelters, or seats for five or six people at a time. These have been carried out imaginatively with a consideration of materials and textures that lift these structures out of the ordinary. From pebbles to patinated copper, from glass to timber, the fact that the commissioning authority had predicted over twice as many visitors turning up as the 18 million that actually did must have been a factor in raising the money to get these schemes off the drawing board. (It is nice to see that Lottery-style business plan cock-ups happen in mainland Europe, too. ) Generally, if this book had been a critique or explanation of the real relationship between engineering and architecture, the writing would not have been incisive or intelligent enough to carry the argument.Fortunately, this is simply an Arup coffee table book and so the text just about makes it. The poor resolution of many of the photographs is an extra shame, because it means that the weak text is not abetted by the rather grainy images. I recommend, however, that it be placed in every brand-spanking new, glass and steel railway station waiting room to while away a few hours when waiting for the decrepit services to arrive.