The Beauty of Transport has been Nationalised (Somewhat to my Surprise)

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. Last week, transport minister John Hayes made a speech decrying ugly transport buildings and demanding nice-looking ones. This state-sponsored move into The Beauty of Transport’s ideological space came as something of a surprise. Had this blog suddenly become redundant?

Leaving aside the annoyance of the fact that I’ve been banging on about the subject for the last four years and now John Hayes comes along as though he’s just invented the idea, it quickly became clear that his views on what makes beautiful transport infrastructure are rather different from those of this blog. And his big idea to ensure more transport architecture in future is aesthetically pleasing is just plain bizarre.

You can read Hayes’ speech here, if you want, before coming back to the rest of this article:

I’m all for people recognising that good transport design, of which architecture is actually just one part, has made and can make the world a more beautiful place. The more the merrier, I reckon. It’s just that Hayes has some rather odd ideas about what constitutes beautiful transport structures. He also fails to mention that it’s government itself, in particular the Department for Transport (DfT) at which he is a minister, which has been responsible for, or authorised, some of Britain’s least attractive transport design of recent years. This is the DfT-backed visual non-identity for the new Thameslink trains:

The underwhelming exterior of a new Thameslink train. Photo by Department for Transport [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.
The underwhelming exterior of a new Thameslink train. Photo by Department for Transport [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.

And this is their chilly, comfortless, DfT-commissioned interior:

Inside one of the new Thameslink trains. Photo by By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside one of the new Thameslink trains. Photo by By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A less beautiful modern train interior it would be hard to imagine. It’s not bad for the inside of a fridge though.

In his speech Hayes indicates that he admires St Pancras station, rebuilt and extended in glorious modern style for its International role as the London end of the High Speed 1 line. The government could take some credit for that, except that he doesn’t mention the other stations on High Speed 1, also authorised by government as part of the same project. Stations like this non-entity of ultra-mediocrity:

Big bland box. Ebbsfleet International station on High Speed 1. Photo by By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Big bland box. Ebbsfleet International station on High Speed 1. Photo by By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The government’s role in ensuring beautiful transport isn’t looking quite so clever now, is it?

Let’s examine Hayes’ speech, made to the Independent Transport Commission on 31 October. That’s Hallowe’en night, appropriately enough, given the scary vision Hayes reveals for the future of transport infrastructure in Britain.

“The aesthetics of our built environment – including our transport architecture – has suffered,” he 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, and we must do everything in our power to fuel the revolt.”

While conveniently glossing over the fact that government itself has been responsible for a lot of this ugliness, it’s so far, so good. I also want beautiful transport infrastructure that enhances the built environment, not unsightly transport infrastructure that spoils it and gives transport a bad name.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point where Hayes starts to go off the rails. “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 poor buildings, and you’ll know of this blog’s enormous frustration with ugly and badly-functioning bus stations, railway stations, airport terminals, filling stations and the like. As I’ve often said, too much new transport infrastructure isn’t attractive. 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. It’s why so many British tram schemes have such unedifying stations.

But the “overwhelming majority” of recent public architecture being worthless and ugly? I don’t think so, and The Beauty of Transport has featured enough attractive and recent transport buildings to prove that’s not the case in the transport sector. Might I suggest that quite of lot of buildings built at any particular point in time aren’t anything special? As with any selection, there will be small numbers of truly awful ones, small numbers of stratospherically brilliant ones, and a large number of thoroughly middle-of-the-road ones, acceptable but less inspiring. Of course, when it comes to old buildings, a lot of the mediocre and bad ones have long since been demolished, leaving a totally unrepresentative idea of what the full range of old buildings was actually like. So yes, there are a lot of poor-to-mediocre recent buildings, and they too will eventually be swept away (Crewe Bus Station, today I have my eye on you…), just as their forbears already have been. But you’re kidding yourself if you think everything built in previous centuries was wonderful.

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 glamourised convenience”. Oh no! Convenience. What a thought. And wait a minute, I thought Hayes liked St Pancras. Yet it looks pretty abstract-from-nature to me. Giant iron arches, and a front which is all spiky, pointy, Gothic nonsense. 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.” Here’s one such building that, when constructed, was also out of scale and bore little or no relationship to its neighbours:

Canterbury Cathedral, looming over its surroundings and completely failing to blend in. I expect it's also on John Hayes' hitlist. Oh, it isn't? Really? Photo by By Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Canterbury Cathedral, looming over its surroundings and completely failing to blend in. I expect it’s also on John Hayes’ hitlist. Oh, it isn’t? Really? Photo by By Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s another.

Bristol Temple Meads station. Photo by Julian Nitzsche (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bristol Temple Meads station. Photo by Julian Nitzsche (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Strangely, however, Bristol Temple Meads is later used by Hayes as an example of the kind of transport building that people want. 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. Watch out, 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.

The changing fortunes of transport infrastructure: this viaduct in Monsal Dale, Derbyshire, was initially regarded as a hideous modern eyesore (much as John Hayes regards modern transport buildings). Now we love it because it's 'traditional' and 'historic'. Current opinion is no guide to the future, nor transport infrastructure's intrinsic worthiness. Photo by Duncan Hull [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The changing fortunes of transport infrastructure: this viaduct in Monsal Dale, Derbyshire, was initially regarded as a hideous modern eyesore (much as John Hayes regards modern transport buildings). Now we love it because it’s ‘traditional’ and ‘historic’. Current opinion is no guide to the future, nor to transport infrastructure’s intrinsic worthiness. Photo by Duncan Hull [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Let’s lavish care and attention on our surviving beautiful transport buildings from the last few centuries, and find a use for the parts that are no longer needed for modern transport operations. But that’s a lot easier said than done. Buildings like Tynemouth station show what can be achieved, but it has been a long, slow, hard job, and it’s been a similar experience at other old transport buildings. That’s why I’m not at all convinced that a Poundburyisation of transport architecture is 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. Not new transport infrastructure. Bad transport infrastructure, because people have little affection for it. ‘Modern’ and ‘Bad’ are not the same thing. Hayes conveniently overlooks all those slowly decaying medium-sized Victorian stations, 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.

I really don’t think vandals set out with an agenda to pass opinion on modern transport infrastructure by targeting recent buildings, just because Hayes thinks they should. For instance, the quaint (and very old) vernacular buildings at Effingham Junction station were vandalised by graffiti, because they were basically a bit rubbish as facilities at a modern station, and had become run down (photo via this link, but I should warn you it contains swastikas so I’m not reproducing it here). Effingham Junction has a nice – new – ticket office now. And it’s a great improvement.

Vandalism of transport buildings has been a problem for years, and it has nothing to do with the age of the building, just with whether it’s currently functioning as an effective and attractive building. Here is Mitcham Junction station in 2008, shabby, neglected, scarred by graffiti, yet Victorian, rather than modern as Hayes’ theory on likely vandalism targets would sugggest:

Mitcham Junction station in 2008, boarded-up, unattractive, and unsurprisingly targetted by graffiti vandals despite being 'historic' and 'attractive'. Photo by Dr Neil Clifton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mitcham Junction station in 2008, boarded-up, unattractive, and unsurprisingly targetted by graffiti vandals despite being being of historic form and style, and made of historic materials. Photo by Dr Neil Clifton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Surely the graffiti vandals should have recognised this as a historic Victorian railway station and gone off to tag something more modern instead? It appears the vandals didn’t get the memo.

Even being historic, absolutely flat-out beautiful, and still in good nick, is no defence against vandalism anyway. Stephenson’s magnificent 1850 Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits was torched by trespassers in 1970.

Vandalism of transport buildings, as indeed for other buildings, has a multitude of causes. These include social exclusion, deprivation, lack of alternative outlets for frustration, and lack of surveillance either passive or active. In fact, historic old transport buildings are often the most difficult to keep an eye on, with their dark nooks and blind corners for wrongdoers to hide in or around. It seems very unlikely that a suppressed penchant for architectural critique is uppermost in vandals’ minds, whatever Hayes chooses to believe.

Modern buildings though, eh? Everyone hates them, according to Hayes, so they treat them badly. Like the stations on London’s Jubilee Line Extension? Oh, not those ones. They’re not vandalised and graffitied on. People love those. Stansted Airport terminal then? That’s modern. What a disaster; or perhaps not? Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Erm, looks pretty good to me. Blackburn Bus Station – wonderful. Norwich Bus Station – dramatic. Barnsley Bus Station – friendly. Welbeck Street car park? A multi-storey car park that’s not an eyesore. The defiantly modern Falkirk Wheel? No? All modern, all wonderful, all loved, none of them vandalised or graffitied over. 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. And that’s why they’re mistreated, not because they’re post-war buildings.

The government is spending a lot of money on transport schemes, says Hayes, like Crossrail, Crossrail 2, High Speed 2, new roads, bridges and trains (though don’t forget the DfT-specified Thameslink trains I mentioned earlier). Hayes suggests there is a golden opportunity to build beautiful new transport infrastructure on such schemes. Cheeringly, he promptly proceeds to completely 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 (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 then he even suggests the brilliant Millau Viaduct (see this earlier The Beauty of Transport article) as an example of good new transport infrastructure.

King's Cross Western Concourse - new (well, seven years old) and very, very good. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
King’s Cross Western Concourse – new (well, seven years old) and very, very good. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Strangely, however, 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. And 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, as far as I can tell, is 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.

New can be good, just as it can be bad. And although Hayes might not like to admit it, old can be bad, just as it can be good. It’s mostly that we’ve got fonder of the old stuff over time, even though it was often hated at first.

Transport infrastructure can make the world more beautiful, regardless of whether it’s old or new. You just have to make sure you build the good stuff. 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 of delivering something visionary which will later become lauded for its visual qualities. Imagine sitting Brunel down in front of a design committee which wanted to ‘help’ him with his designs. Meanwhile, about 50% of the time the government mentions HS2, it goes hand-in-hand with a proud statement that they’ve found a new way to hide more of it. I’m not sure how that’s going to enhance the built environment.

But wait, Hayes has an even grander idea to take us into the glorious uplands of attractive transport infrastructure. It’s really big. And it’s…

Oh, you can guess what's coming now...
Oh, you can guess what’s coming now… See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…to rebuild the Euston Arch. He’s seen the stones, you know.

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 – you can’t just decide that something isn’t liked just because you don’t like it), the arch has become an infamous loss (more on that lost building in this article). And this is, apparently, to be, “our totem; our guide to the future, our chance to signal the renaissance.”

So the future is to, erm, rebuild lost old transport buildings? In that case, here are some I want back: Ocean Terminal (the old one), Southampton; Renfrew Airport Terminal; St Albans bus garage and bus station; Hastings station (1930s version). But that’s no way forward.

Maybe it’s me, but shouldn’t the future instead be full of wonderful new transport buildings? Sure, 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 actually 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. I want more new transport buildings like Lyon Gare du Saint-Exupéry (for train travel), Casar de Cáceres bus station (for bus travel), Hoenheim-Nord (for tram travel, exactly the sort of “sculptural shaped structure” Hayes would probably hate), and Madrid Barajas Airport Terminal 4 (for air travel).

Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupery. Photo by Edwin Lee [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupery. Photo by Edwin Lee [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Alarmingly, we might soon discover more detail about Hayes’ grand vision for the future (or rather, what sounds like a return to some mis-remembered past) of British transport infrastructure, as he says he is going to speak more on the subject in the future. I’m not holding my breath for such pronouncements to make any more sense than this latest one.

Right at the beginning of his speech, Hayes offers up a wonderful hostage to fortune. “Politicians speak a lot and sometimes they speak sense,” he says. The first part is true. I’m still waiting for the second part, when it comes to the subject of beautiful transport. Is it too much to hope that one of the DfT’s civil servants might take him aside and make him see sense before I have to read another of his ridiculous speeches on the subject?

Correction – 10 November 2016

The original version of this article credited Stephenson’s lovely Britannia Bridge to Brunel in an unforgivable error. I clearly had Brunel on the brain after mentioning Temple Meads. 

5 thoughts on “The Beauty of Transport has been Nationalised (Somewhat to my Surprise)

  1. He’s a politician. What does he know? The seats on those thameslink trains look like ironing boards and are probably just as comfortable. And I’ll have Renfrew Airport back too but you’ll have to demolish a tesco (no bad thing) and re-route the m8 motorway!

  2. A fantastic deconstruction of the absolute idiocy which would be funny if it wasn’t so genuinely frightening. Oh well, at least this situation where politics and policy is completely in thrall to mail-reading little englanders with “everything was better in the sepia-tinged victorian ages, modern life is scary and bad, we should destroy everything that doesn’t fit that blinkered, historic ideal, turning the clock back to a fictional utopia is totally possible” only extends to transport infrastructure, and isn’t being inflicted on the very demographic make-up of the country, our trade and diplomatic relationships with our neighbours, or anything like that.

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