Championing Quality: Network Rail’s New Focus on Architecture and Design (Part 1)

A raft of recent initiatives at Network Rail, the British rail infrastructure owner and operator, is putting a spotlight on architecture and design. The company has a new determination to promote and show off the wonder and glory of the best of railway infrastructure and visual identity. In the last two years, the company has worked largely out of sight to put in the place the building blocks of this approach, but this new commitment is now beginning to show an increasingly public face.

One of Network Rail’s gems: London Paddington station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Network Rail’s estate includes thousands of bridges and viaducts, some of which are amongst Britain’s most iconic structures. It owns thousands more signal boxes, from tiny cottage-style examples to Brutalist behemoths via ocean liner-like Streamline Moderne buildings. In fact it owns some 17,000 plus buildings, and those are just the ones which aren’t railway stations. It has a shade over 2,500 of those, and directly operates 20 of the largest stations in the country, including historic landmark stations like London Paddington, London King’s Cross and Glasgow Central, and rebuilt stations with eye-catching modern architecture like London Bridge and Reading.

Thanks to some new people at the top of its buildings and architecture functions, Network Rail is once again putting to the forefront architecture and design in a way its illustrious predecessor railway companies would recognise, and approve of.

Professional Head Buildings and Architecture Anthony Dewar, and Principal Architect Frank Anatole have already overhauled Network Rail’s internal processes. The first fruits of that new approach have started to become visible to interested observers outside the company, and the pair have some big plans for the future of Network Rail’s architecture and design functions. The results should be obvious not just to those with an eye on architecture and design, and will directly impact on the experience of regular passengers.

I met Dewar and Anatole recently, and they explained some of the design and architecture challenges facing Network Rail and their plans to address them.

A Loss of Industry Focus on Architecture and Design

It is generally recognised that while Network Rail’s immediate predecessor Railtrack did well with big projects like the refurbishment of large stations and their roofs, or the graphic identities and signage system at its directly operated stations, at other times it took its eye off the ball when it came to maintaining standards of architecture and design across the rest of its infrastructure.

In the wake of the Hatfield crash and Railtrack’s replacement by Network Rail, the latter had a laserlike focus on engineering and maintenance to ensure safety and reliability. Dewar doesn’t think it’s fair to lay blame at Network Rail’s door for decisions made in the past, under very particular circumstances, which led to a something of a reduced focus on architecture and design. However, it seemed obvious to outsiders that architecture and design became something of a Cinderella part of the operation while Network Rail concentrated on getting engineering and maintenance back under control.

Dewar and Anatole are an engaged and engaging pair, passionate about both their work and the railway as an entity, driven by a desire to put right a company that they perceived had lost focus on architecture and design due to its concentration on reliability and engineering. Dewar, a civil engineer by training, had been in and out of the railway industry several times before becoming Route Asset Manager (Buildings and Civils) at Network Rail and then making the move to Professional Head Buildings and Architecture in 2017.

Reinvigorating Architecture and Design

Always interested in architecture and way railway structures looked, not simply their engineering functionality, Dewar found himself the right person in the right place at the right time. With the arrival of new Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines in 2018, Dewar found that the company had a supporter of architecture and design quality at the highest level.

Dewar’s next move was to recruit Anatole as Principal Architect (Dewar’s role also covers buildings engineering, structures, and building services as well as architecture), fresh from a job on Crossrail architecture, and before that at architecture practice Grimshaw as part of a team working on the London Bridge reconstruction project. “But my real transport education came from AREP, the ‘Agence des Gares’ set up by Jean Marie Duthilleul and Étienne Tricaud in Paris in the 1990s. It’s to AREP that I owe my social and philosophical outlook on stations,” Anatole adds.

Two years in, Dewar thinks he’s helped Network Rail to a position where he can claim that, “We are now experiencing a re-emergence of our interest in architecture and design.” He has brought in the Design Council to help challenge the way Network Rail used to do things, and how it could things differently in future. “It was open heart surgery on our architecture and design processes,” Dewar notes ruefully.

The results of this exercise have informed a large number of activities. Much of the work has been internal, but some has already made its way to the outside world.

Design Competition: First Steps

In particular, Network Rail has launched several design competitions. The highest profile so far has been the RIBA Footbridge Design Ideas Competition. Launched in June 2018, it sought new ideas for accessible footbridges at stations, highly visible pieces of infrastructure not just within the station itself but, thanks to their height, often visible in stations’ hinterlands.

“I was inspired by the early railway pioneers who in some cases used design competitions to deliver their now iconic built environment,” explains Dewar. “We hadn’t done a design competition for over a generation, and I was keen to open us up to new ideas, creativity and to have our pre-conceptions challenged”.

The competition turned out to be a roaring success. Over 120 entries were received, from all around the world. Designs ranged from the immediately practical to the daringly futuristic, encompassing modular construction methods and advanced materials. The winner was The Frame, by Danish architecture practice Gottlieb Paludan Architects.

Gottlieb Paludan Architects’ competition winning footbridge design: The Frame. Image via Network Rail website

“I was determined that the competition had to lead to something real,” adds Dewar. Many design competitions never progress to real-world outputs, but Network Rail has continued to work with Gottlieb Paludan Architects to develop The Frame into something which will eventually be built.

The Frame will be one of at least four or five standard station footbridge designs from which Network Rail will be able to select for use across the network. Network Rail used a more conventional tender approach to secure additional designs from Knight Architects/Arup and Haskoll/Davies Maguire. In another demonstration of Network Rail’s increased interest in architecture, Knight Architects/Arup’s footbridge design is the Ribbon, a contemporary take on the traditional arched footbridge with lift towers unexpectedly turned by 30 degrees. “We’ve found that we can use the lift towers to really create character,” explains Anatole. Knight/Arup have also been commissioned to design a bespoke footbridge at Tidemills on the Seaford line in Sussex.

Haskoll/Davies Maguire’s ‘The Beacon’ footbridge design. Image via Network Rail website

Haskoll/Davies Maguire footbridge design is the Beacon, where the lift towers are glazed at their tops to create illuminated landmarks and are also decorated with oversized platform numbers and National Rail symbols.

A fourth design is currently under development with a yet-to-be-named company. The first three, however, are now publicly available via the ARki app, which lets iPhone users examine 3D models of the bridges and place them in their local environment, through Augmented Reality technology. Again, this is part of Dewar’s effort to raise the external profile of Network Rail’s reinvigorated interest in architecture and design.

When I mention that any of the three new designs are already much better-looking than Network Rail’s current accessible footbridges, which vary in detail but all look fairly similar, and describe such bridges as “standard”, both Anatole and Dewar smile at my mistake.

Ubiquitous but not standard – one of Network Rail’s recent accessible footbridges, seen at Fratton. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

“The only footbridge where there is an actual Network Rail standard is the stepped-only version for use away from stations. And even today it’s basically hand-built, hand-welded, painted and then transported out to site where it’s put together,” Dewar complains. “It hasn’t changed from the process we used to build them 40 years ago.” It is yet another reason why footbridges were the focus of the first design competition.

The competition also resulted in a public exhibition shown at RIBA in London, last February, and subsequently displayed at some of Network Rail’s stations. The exhibition has now moved to the National Railway Museum in York, and was another example of Dewar’s agenda of making Network Rail’s renewed interest in architecture evident to the wider world.

Part of the Network Rail Footbridge Design Ideas Competition exhibition at RIBA in London, February 2019. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Other Competitions: Reinvigoration, Joy and Seating

Other, smaller, competitions have followed. Each year the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has a student awards scheme, and one of the categories in 2019 was “Grand Station Designs”. Sponsored by Network Rail, it sought “a way to reinvigorate and/or repurpose an ageing commuter train station building, utilising its existing structures and resources”. The winner was Sophie Cane at Norwich University of the Arts, with a scheme for a creative workshop kit and exhibition for a station. Dewar’s desire for competitions to lead to real-world projects comes up again as he notes that he is closing in on a station suitable to try the idea out.

2020’s category is “A Platform for Joy” in which students are being challenged to come up with interventions that make passengers’ experience of a station more joyful. This video sets out the brief:

Brief 6. A Platform for Joy presented by Anthony Dewar from RSA Student Design Awards on Vimeo.

Network Rail’s latest design competition is “Sitting Pretty”, in conjunction with the London Festival of Architecture 2020, for a new station bench design. Winners – Anatole is looking for four designs to be trialled across four stations – will be announced in Spring 2020 and the prototype benches installed in summer.

“Seating at stations hasn’t had good focus on it for a generation,” says Dewar, despite technology, materials and understanding of ergonomics having moved on in recent years. Here, Dewar and Anatole have already had some success raising the profile of design within the company. Attractive new benches from Swedish company Green Furniture Concept have been installed at London Bridge and London Victoria stations, featuring curved wooden slats on curving frames, which offer both comfort and efficient use of space.

Complementing the architecture, Nova C benches at London Bridge station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

“At the end of CP5 [Network Rail’s last funding period, 2014-19] Network Rail’s South East Route team identified a budget for passenger comfort improvements and approached us for advice,” explains Dewar. The result was the selection of Green Furniture Concept’s Nova C series, a product which is hard-wearing, modular and easy to maintain/repair, but which is also comfortable and visually attractive. Not only do the seats look lovely, especially at London Bridge where they complement noise-reducing wooden slats on the ceiling, but the inclusion of small tables suitable for laptops for food has also changed passenger behaviour. It has encouraged passengers to disperse to seats around the station rather than congregating at food outlets, where crowding can result in congestion to the detriment of other passengers trying to make their way around the station.

This success raises the question of how to ensure that the rest of Network Rail is equally involved with Dewar and Anatole’s architecture and design functions. “We have some 3,000 engineers across the company… and approximately 12 architects,” notes Dewar. Network Rail has recently restructured, devolving more decision making power to five Regions, supporting 14 routes which have enhanced responsibility for delivery of operations, maintenance and renewals. Although some previously centralised functions have been devolved to Routes or Regions, Dewar’s responsibilities remain a national function. A key challenge has been to ensure that there is widespread understanding of the importance of architecture and design across the Routes and Regions.

In part two of this interview, next week, Dewar and Anatole explain how Network Rail itself is changing the way it approaches these functions, and preview some upcoming design initiatives.

4 thoughts on “Championing Quality: Network Rail’s New Focus on Architecture and Design (Part 1)

  1. I now suffer from footbridge envy. 🙂 (not the Fratton one, the two first designs)
    Have you seen the grey monster they installed some three years ago at New Eltham?
    I’d describe the look as …”sturdy” — if I wanted to be nice.

    Mind you, that’s only the look. It isn’t sturdy. The tiles are coming loose every winter.

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