John Hayes’ views on attractive transport infrastructure are incoherent and a prejudiced example of Modernism-bashing

 

hoenheim_nordHoenheim-Nord tram terminus

 

By Daniel Wright

The UK government has decided that transport infrastructure should look nice as well as working well, enhancing the built environment rather than detracting from it, as transport minister John Hayes explained in a speech to the Independent Transport Commission on October 31.

Leaving aside the annoyance of the fact that I’ve been saying the same thing for the last four years and now John Hayes has come along as though he’s just invented the idea, it quickly became clear that his views on what makes beautiful transport infrastructure are somewhat confused, and seem to come from a background of prejudice against modern architecture.

“The overwhelming majority of public architecture built during my lifetime is aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly,” he states. I’m no apologist for the all-too-many ugly and badly-functioning bus stations, railway stations, airport terminals, and the like. Yet one of the main reasons is that such schemes often rely on at least some element of public funding. Local government faces harsh funding pressures, and there is a desire on the part of central government to be seen not to “waste” money on what might be seen by some as non-essential items. This, unfortunately, often includes things like attractive buildings rather than just purely functional ones.

“The aesthetics of our built environment – including our transport architecture – has suffered,” Hayes claims, “from what Sir Roger Scruton has called the Cult of Ugliness. Yet there are signs that we’re on the cusp of a popular revolt against this soulless cult.”

Transport architecture ought to look good as well as work well, a lesson the transport industry has learnt, forgotten, and relearnt, several times already. As for the “overwhelming majority” of recent public architecture being worthless and ugly? There are enough attractive and recent transport buildings to prove that’s not the case in the transport sector.

You can always tell that an argument about architecture has swerved into the mildly unhinged when Prince Charles is brought in as evidential support. And so he is, with Hayes quoting Prince Charles’s comment, “Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamorised convenience”. What a thought. And it seems from his speech that Hayes admires the rebuilt and extended St Pancras International. Yet it looks pretty abstract-from-nature with its giant iron arches, and a front which is all spiky, pointy, Gothic. Wouldn’t that mean abstract from nature is… a good thing? Or is it only a good thing in old buildings, not Modernist ones?

Modernists, indeed, are firmly in Hayes sights. They “cling to a tired desire to shock; a sad addiction to the newness of things”. And there’s more. “Be warned! The descendants of the brutalists still each day design and build new horrors from huge concrete slabs to out of scale; rough-hewn buildings, and massive sculptural shaped structures which bear little or no relationship to their older neighbours.”

Medieval cathedrals did just that when first built, as did large Victorian railway stations later on. One such, Bristol Temple Meads, is used by Hayes as an example of a beautiful transport building. But again, perhaps old buildings that are out of scale and not like their neighbours are good, but recent ones with similar characteristics are bad.

In other words, Hayes’ argument isn’t really about size, scale or relationship to other buildings at all. It’s that he wants buildings, transport buildings in this case, to look old-fashioned. Here comes Prince Charles again. “The Prince of Wales foundation for Building Community has found that 84% of those asked want new buildings to reflect historic form, style and materials,” says Hayes. This rather overlooks the fact that what are now beloved historic transport structures like the great railway viaducts, and stations like St Pancras, were themselves very unpopular when first built. Poet John Ruskin rued what he saw as the destruction of Monsal Dale by a new viaduct, noting that, “Now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.” That viaduct is now a much-loved part of the local landscape.

A Poundburyisation of transport architecture with pastiche ‘ye olde’ buildings is not much of a way forward; rather a step back.

But Hayes is having none of it. He asks us to, “Take a walk through a typical British town or city… which buildings, I ask you, will invariably be the shabbiest and neglected, the most disfigured by vandalism or scarred by graffiti?

“It is usually the relatively modern buildings – those built within my lifetime – including the transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, post-war bus and train stations, and car parks.”

This, I am afraid, is utter tosh. Bad transport infrastructure is often disfigured by vandalism and scarred by graffiti because people have little affection for it. Not new transport infrastructure. ‘Modern’ and ‘Bad’ are not the same thing. Hayes conveniently overlooks all those slowly decaying medium-sized Victorian station buildings, with boarded-up windows, sad and often vandalised, where it’s proved too difficult to find a new use for them to stop them sliding into decline. It seems very unlikely that a suppressed penchant for architectural critique is uppermost in vandals’ minds, whatever Hayes chooses to believe.

Modern transport infrastructure attracts graffiti and vandalism, according to Hayes. That doesn’t seem to be the typical experience with the stations on London’s Jubilee Line Extension. People love those. Stansted Airport terminal, then? That’s modern and highly regarded for setting a new standard in transport terminal design. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge is already a much-loved local landmark. Blackburn’s brand new bus station is wonderful. Norwich Bus Station is dramatic. Barnsley Bus Station is friendly. Welbeck Street in London is a multi-storey car park that’s not an eyesore. All modern, but stubbornly refusing to bend to Hayes’ stereotype. Bad modern transport buildings (Sunderland railway station, Gatwick Airport, Guildford Friary bus station, lots of others) are bad, not because they’re modern, but because they’re just not very good.

The government is spending a lot of money on transport schemes, says Hayes, like Crossrail, Crossrail 2, HS2, new roads, and bridges. He suggests there is a golden opportunity to build beautiful transport infrastructure on such schemes. Cheeringly, he promptly proceeds to undermine all the arguments he has made thus far against “Modern” buildings by suggesting that some recent modern transport infrastructure has shown it can “counter the blind orthodoxy of ugliness”. He suggests the extended and modernised St Pancras (indeed), the modern extension to King’s Cross (I couldn’t agree more, quite brilliant) and Blackfriars station, for its over-the-Thames platforms and the mind-blowing views which can be had from them. And he also suggests the brilliant Millau Viaduct as another example of good new transport infrastructure.

None of these buildings “reflect historic form, style and materials”. That will surely disappoint the 84% of people who want to see buildings like this. Yet didn’t Hayes seem to suggest he agreed with the 84%? I’m confused… but probably not as confused as Hayes seems to be. His thesis appears to be that modern transport buildings are bad because they’re ugly, except all the ones that aren’t, and we need to have historic-looking buildings, except when we don’t because we can build attractive and useful modern ones.

So what is Hayes’ solution to the problem of ugly modern transport infrastructure?

First off, the government has established design panels for Highways England’s new roads, and for HS2. Not bad, although committees aren’t always the best way to deliver something visionary which will later become lauded for its visual qualities. Imagine sitting Brunel down in front of a design committee.

But Hayes has an even grander idea to take us into the glorious uplands of attractive transport infrastructure. It’s really big. And it’s… to rebuild the Euston Arch, can you believe? He’s seen the stones, he says.

Demolished in the 1960s to make way for the rebuilt Euston station (often derided, as it is by Hayes, but which has significant numbers of supporters too), the arch has become an infamous loss. And this is, apparently, to be, “our totem; our guide to the future, our chance to signal the renaissance”.

Shouldn’t the future instead be full of wonderful new transport buildings? Let’s celebrate our beautiful transport buildings from the past, lavish love and care on them and keep them attractive and useful in the present day. But recreating this style of building as a pastiche is a dead end. Hayes knows it too, when he admits that new transport buildings which have been constructed in a modern style can be both beautiful and useful.

If Hayes can go abroad to Millau to make his arguments, so can I. We need new transport buildings like Lyon Gare du Saint-Exupéry, Casar de Cáceres bus station, Hoenheim-Nord tram terminus (exactly the sort of “sculptural shaped structure” Hayes probably hates),
and Madrid Barajas Airport Terminal 4.

Hayes promises more to come regarding his vision for the future (or rather, what sounds like a return to some mis-remembered past) of British transport infrastructure. I’m not holding my breath for such pronouncements to make any more sense than this latest one.

 

About the author:
Daniel Wright writes transport, art, design and architecture blog The Beauty of Transport

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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