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Martin Pawley: fighting the last war

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A few years ago aj published a conversation between Berthold Lubetkin and Gavin Stamp, wherein these unlikely bedfellows united in deploring the disappearance of the red telephone box. I remember being shocked by this at the time. Did Lubetkin, the greatest Modern architect of his age, really want to preserve Gilbert Scott telephone boxes? Did he no longer believe Antonio Sant' Elia's dictum, set forth in the 1914 Manifesto of Futurist Architecture: 'The fundamental qualities of the architecture of the future will be impermanence and transience'? Had he temporarily lost his wits in the presence of the charismatic Stamp, and would have agreed to any proposition the latter put to him?

Whatever the reason, neither man saw any connection between the threat to telephone boxes and the rise of the mobile telephone, which was gaining ground by leaps and bounds, even as they spoke. Their problem was that they were distracted by the present, and as a result the future was waltzing through unchallenged.

This matter was brought to mind by news of London & Continental Railways' funding crisis in respect of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Although played up by the media as a national disgrace - 'even the Belgians have done it' - there is another spin to put on things. As the first nation to industrialise, the first nation to build railways, the first nation to de-industrialise and the first nation to dismantle its railways, isn't there something along the lines of the mobile phone analogy to grasp hold of here? Surely, just as the personal phone has converted the heritage phone box into an advertising system for sex workers, so has the development of private transport and communications rendered railways old hat.

The reason Eurostar trains run 90 per cent empty, and the reason l&cr can't (and the government won't) bankroll the Channel Tunnel link is because it is an uphill battle trying to solve new problems with old answers. Railways are such an old, heavy, long-wave transport technology that they cost a fortune to keep in a state of steady decline, let alone improve - as the new privatised train companies are busy finding out. Far from being re-nationalised, they should be handed over to Sir Jocelyn Stevens. He could make better sense of them with some even older rolling stock and a few top-hatted station masters.

There is no future in investing in systems that have passed their sell- by date. The technology to forge ahead with is the technology that is so successful and wealth-making that it has to be restrained by the courts. Step forward William Gates III, the man who has conquered the world of communications, and changed the meaning of the words 'architecture', 'windows' and 'panes' - without a penny of public money or an inch of railway line. As my old friend General Sir Adrian Gale would no doubt put it: 'Always reinforce strength, never reinforce weakness.'

Just because the French and Germans are majoring in high-speed trains at the moment, there is no reason why we should copy them. We had the fastest trains in the world in the 1930s. Been there. Done that.

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