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Always a Welcome

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The Glove Compartment History of the Motorway Service Area by David Lawrence. Between Books, 1999. 112pp.

£12.95 John Major's celebrated conference speech, in which he said the key problem facing Conservative families was the need for more frequent motorway lavatories, doubtless struck a chord with David Lawrence, writes Paul Finch.

His latest book, Always a Welcome, is a hymn to the joys of the motorway service area. It follows a similar encomium to the London Underground (AJ 16.3.95), but exploits fully the additional visual opportunities offered by a building type which itself contributed to popular culture.

The list of architects who have designed major service areas in the period under review (1959-1999) range from Patrick Gwynne to Broadway Malyan, from C H Elsom to Garnett Cloughley Blakemore. The wonderful and eclectic range of photographs and drawings is a reminder of days gone by: an Archigram-style montage by Trevor Pattison at Aust near the Severn Bridge (see left), designed 'to cheer up the lorry drivers', was removed by the mid-70s.

With the precedent of US service areas and buildings, and the Milan-Rome Autostrada of 1956, the Ministry of Transport lost no time in working out that service areas for Britain's new motorways meant money - 50-year leases, guaranteed investment in building stock, and a cut of gross turnover for the government.

A boom was born, although attempts to go upmarket never prospered: Terence Conran's design for the 'Captain's Table' restaurant at Leicester Forest East, including waiters dressed as captains and waitresses as sailors, failed to strike a chord.

Modernism, Expressionism, High-Tech and PostModernism all found their way, albeit in generally diluted form, onto the motorway verge. Lawrence's book is a little wonder, a minor social history. We feel as remote from its early days as Albert Finney, in the film Charlie Bubbles, felt out of place at Newport Pagnell in his gold Rolls Royce. They don't make them like that any more.

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