While TWA was building a fabulous thin shell structure at Idlewild Airport near New York, here in Britain, our very own version was being built too. It wasn’t as big as the TWA Flight Center. It wasn’t quite as dramatic, although its design must have come as an utter shock to its first users. While the TWA Flight Center was all about the glamour of the jet age, this building was all about getting from London to Edinburgh on the A1 in a Humber Super Snipe. This week’s example of beautiful transport is the filling station – and later, Little Chef restaurant- at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire.
The future arrived, quite out of the blue, at Markham Moor in 1961, when a new filling station by architect Hugh Segar (Sam) Scorer, working with structural engineer Dr Hajnal-Kónyi (a German refugee who had come to the UK in 1936, and was a specialist in concrete thin shell structures), opened for business. The design was a concrete roof, in the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid (that’s a saddle shape, or something a bit like a Pringle but with sharp bits at the highest points, to you and me) supported on four concrete stanchions. It was built for a total cost of £4,500 (at contemporary prices). Scorer was fascinated by the potential of these curvy concrete roofs and designed several buildings utilising them (there’s a flickr photo pool dedicated to his work which is worth a look if parabaloids are your cup of tea; you’ll guess by now that I’ve had a look through already…)
Scorer/Hajnal-Kónyi’s Markham Moor looked like no other filling station British car drivers had ever seen. You have to remember that at the time, a filling station was most likely a couple of pumps outside a large wooden shed which also acted as the local car repair workshop. This, on the other hand, looked like it had been transported to the A1 from 40 years’ hence. There aren’t any easily available photos of the hyperbolic paraboloid in use as a filling station, but there’s a small one here. It continued in use until the filling station closed in 1989, at which point then-popular roadside restaurant chain Little Chef built a restaurant under the roof. I have fond memories of dinners at Little Chef as a small child, as they provided a very welcome interval on long car journeys. And they did the most extraordinary all-day breakfasts which to a child were things of near-inconceivable wonder: fried sausages, fried bread, fried mushrooms, baked beans, fried egg, chips…those readers unfamiliar with the 1980s Little Chef experience will begin to understand some of the reasons the chain felt the need to revise its menus in later years.
Plans to improve the road junction at Markham Moor meant that the Little Chef and its roof were threatened with demolition by the Highways Agency in 2004, and it was then that the first serious calls for the building to be listed were made. Fortunately the plans were revised and the building escaped the wrecking ball. The Little Chef restuarant closed in the summer of 2012, and the building (paraboloid roof and restaurant both together) now stands devoid of use, just as the TWA Flight Center does. But while the Flight Center is being restored, no-one seems to know what is going to happen to the Markham Moor filling station, and it is looking dreadfully shabby. What a shame.
On the plus side, it was listed by English Heritage at Grade II in March 2012, just a few months before the restaurant closed, which will help protect it. The listing is hilarious, as only official government quango-speak can be, and makes it quite clear that the paraboloid roof is the only thing which is of interest here, and that the Little Chef restaurant nestling underneath is of No Architectural Merit WHATSOEVER. After noting rather sniffily that, “The canopy and four structural supports remain intact and uncompromised by the inserted building beneath,” it goes on to say, “The restaurant building does not have special interest and is excluded from the listing.” Just so we’re all absolutely clear, in the very next sentence English Heritage adds, “The interior of the restaurant building has standard late C20 fittings, typical of those found at motorway service stations, and is not of special interest”. Now I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think English Heritage has a very high opinion of the Little Chef restaurant’s build quality.
The roof, however, remains a minor thing of wonder, enhancing the journeys of motorists passing by on the A1. Let’s hope somebody finds a use for it.