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HS2 chairman's 'depressing' view of design slammed

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Malcolm Reading and Deborah Saunt have attacked David Higgins’ comments on £40billion rail link

Leading architecture competition organiser Malcolm Reading has attacked the ‘depressing’ view of design held by the chairman of the £40bn HS2 rail link.

Earlier this month, David Higgins, the HS2 chair and former chief executive of Network Rail and the Olympic Delivery Authority, was asked by AJ about the prospects for an international design contest to be held for the proposed Colne Valley viaduct on the HS2 route through Buckinghamshire.

Higgins replied he was generally in favour of standardisation to bring costs down and create ‘economies of scale’. He said HS2 should adopt a similar approach to that used on the Olympic Village where only the façade details of buildings differed.

‘It doesn’t mean you can’t do the Colne Valley viaduct in a way that reflects the local vernacular,’ he added.

But Reading, who has organised international competitions including the Guggenheim in Helsinki and Olympicopolis on the London Olympic park, said Higgins needed to learn from the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Reading added that he supported holding a competition for the Colne Valley viaduct

He said: ‘It’s a depressing outlook if the man charged with building one of this century’s key pieces of infrastructure can only offer us standardised structures and economies of scale. I’m all in favour of value for money, but why should this be at the expense of good design creating a sense of place and wonder.

‘Brunel designed and built utterly diverse yet superbly integrated bridges, tunnels and stations for the Great Western Railway – a piece of infrastructure built to exceptional standards for the time. Higgins’ argues that the Athletes’ Village stick-on facades are the epitome of design excellence and implies this is a model for HS2 to follow. It’s not – engineering infrastructure is not housing. Do any of us believe that the Athletes’ Village will be standing in 50 years – whereas HS2 should be designed to amaze us a century or more from now.’

Architect Deborah Saunt, co-founder of DSDHA and the leader of a unit at the Cass school of architecture examining infrastructure, called Higgins’ comments ‘misguided’.

She said: ‘Having spent last year researching the design aims of HS2 with our post-graduate students…we can see that HS2, like many current infrastructure projects, may rely on using a “one size fits all” kit of parts in order to apparently make the most of economies of scale, but this is a misguided approach upon further enquiry. 

‘Designed to fit the most extreme case on a given route, this creates generic and over-engineered modules that are used indiscriminately. For example bridges that are engineered to span motorways are used to span country lanes or sound barriers that respond only one notional condition yet are applied unilaterally.

‘It appears to be applying a cookie cutter approach to infrastructure which carries with it the huge detriment to the routes and villages severed by the new route but to the landscape too. It is the antithesis to the approach Brunel used on the Great Western Railway, which now boasts several listed structures.’

But Richard Rogers, who two years ago attacked the design approach of the £15bn Crossrail link, said standardisation was not necessarily the enemy of design if used intelligently.

‘I can’t see why we cannot develop a standardised system which is sufficiently supple and can adapt,’ he said. ‘That system has to be of a sufficient standard and we should have competitions [on HS2] which are run like the Pompidou or the Sydney Opera House where at least half the jury are good architects.’

Last week, the HS2 select committee announced backing for the case put forward by Bucks County Council, South Bucks District Council, the Colne Valley Park, London Borough of Hillingdon and Three Rivers District Council for an international design competition to be held for the Colne Valley viaduct.

Read - David Higgins: ‘HS2 can’t be another compromise



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Readers' comments (1)

  • Good design is about the intelligent use of resources to add value. It is extremely depressing that David Higgins does not understand best value nor perceive the opportunity to deliver enlightened infrastructure of the highest possible quality that might also provide some distinction. The opportunity should be taken to have multiple design contests for HS2 infra structure, not only for bridges, but right down to signage and carriages etc to ensure that this project delivers an exemplary outcome for the country.

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