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We need to tell the transport minister about great modern design

Will Hurst

John Hayes’ tirade against ‘the Cult of Ugliness’ does at least demonstrate a rare interest in architectural aesthetics by a government minister. We should take advantage of this, says Will Hurst

An eye-catching memorial entitled Beauty < Immortality, designed by Turner Prize-nominated artists Langlands & Bell, was unveiled at Piccadilly Circus this week to celebrate the work of Frank Pick (1878-1941). As the boss of London Underground, Pick was the mastermind behind many of its groundbreaking and enduring designs. He commissioned its famous bar and circle logo known as the ‘roundel’, Harry Beck’s Tube map, the Johnston typeface and many of Charles Holden’s Modernist stations, including Piccadilly Circus itself.  

One wonders what transport minister John Hayes will make of it given his tirade last week against what he calls a ‘Cult of Ugliness’. The thrust of his speech – in which he promisingly called for beautiful transport architecture – was rather refreshing. But it did not go down well with AJ readers, probably because he also managed to attack the Brutalists and their ‘descendants’ while admiringly quoting both the Prince of Wales and right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton.

Frank pick memorial piccadilly circus 0004

Frank pick memorial piccadilly circus 0004

‘Where do they find these people?’ commented PenrynPat, while Chris Roche sarcastically applauded the minister for his ‘interesting logic, which will no doubt lead to the return of the horse and cart only with the cart put before the horse to avoid the aesthetic of the horse’s arse’.

A lot of Hayes’ argument doesn’t help his case. While he’s right that ugliness is everywhere you look in Britain, he doesn’t seem to see the contradiction in calling for a 21st-century architecture that harks back to the past, while also celebrating examples of Victorian transport design that were hugely bold and modern at the time – something Pick surely understood. 

He also dismisses almost all modern buildings (built within his lifetime) on the very shaky logic that the public hates them. 

‘Which buildings, I ask you, will invariably be the shabbiest and most neglected, the most disfigured by vandalism or scarred by graffiti?’ he said. ‘It is usually the relatively modern buildings … including the transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, post-war bus and train stations, and car parks.’

It’s rare for a minister to even mention beauty let alone make it the basis for a call to arms 

Notwithstanding the fact that such examples are often delivered with zero design input, they are also public facilities, often starved of maintenance and repairs as a result. It’s exactly the same argument that those in favour of bulldozing Robin Hood Gardens put forward, while conveniently forgetting to mention that it had been left to rot.

That said, it’s very rare for a minister to even mention beauty let alone make it the basis for a call to arms. In that spirit, architects should see this as an opportunity. I urge you to write to the minister at hayesj@parliament.uk and educate him about what makes great modern design, and what challenges architects face in delivering beautiful roads and stations.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Rogers

    Hmm, bit OTT that artwork/memorial, no?? Ironic given Pick was into minimal explanations and text, believing the art should speak for itself.

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