chris wise engineer

The arse-about-face design method for railway bridges

When the Infrastructure Planning Commission is replaced in the new Localism Bill, we can still expect an interminable journey for every wind farm, railway, power line or energy-from-waste plant. RES’s five years to put even a modest wind farm on Dorset farmland (Times 10th June) shows that we retain a particular ability to be hypocritical about tackling climate change on the one hand and our back gardens on the other. It doesn’t help that infrastructure is often so grotesquely ugly that it is only acceptable if it is invisible.  “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture…the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal” said Nikolaus Pevsner in An Outline of European Architecture, 1943.

He might mean that “building”, in which I’d include infrastructure, is cast down into the primeval swamp, a sort of sub-architectural drudge, to be pitied in its ugliness.  But I prefer another, more logical, interpretation of Pevsner’s remark….that there is no architecture unless you can first design a “building”. He says this quite clearly, and I think he’s right.

Pevsner’s companion volume “An Outline of Global Infrastructure” is still waiting to be written, a victim of our neglect. I see the result out of the window of my train each day. Rude infrastructure, it’s “building”, and very little of it is “architecture”. Yet it is not occasionally glorious architecture which really dominates our world, but infrastructure. Infrastructure consumes our resources, and we have built a huge industry to provide it for us. But it is an industry long on conservatism, short on inspiration. For an alternative take, look at the work of  Ken Grange in his upcoming “Making Britain Modern” exhibition at the Design Museum. You can easily imagine him designing a crash barrier or station platform. Twenty years ago he even made a passable fist of Adshel’s bus shelters. Grange whittles away at every detail, every material, every component, every composition. Yes he designs things of beauty, but the aesthetic comes out of the manufacturing process, not a style magazine.

In UK infrastructure we have a long list of offences to take into consideration…. for example, our 40,000 railway bridges. At the start of my commute I use Dorking Station, now home to a bloated King Kong of a bridge. Its only function is to get wheelchairs and buggies across the tracks. Two lifts and an elevated link would solve this. Except that people could throw things onto the tracks, so the link needs to be enclosed. Now it sprouts windows, ventilation, lighting, roof gutters and becomes a motorway so that wheelchairs can pass each other. And for goodness sake give those lifts a lobby….with stainless control panels. Bother!…it’s now politically unfair to ordinary pedestrians, so let’s add stairs for everyone to use, even though they’ve used the tunnel underneath the tracks for 120 years.

A combination of higher ticket prices and our taxes and a share of the world’s precious resources pays for this incontinent rubbish. But we aren’t finished yet… for the “footbridge” blobs there in the pretty Surrey Hills, so let’s cover all the steel in brick to blend in with the local vernacular. The monstrous thing now attracts more wind than the Eiffel tower and has a wind-resisting structure to die for.

Stop the world, now I want to get off and redesign the other 39,999 bridges…..

That’s enough bleating, now we have a chance to redesign a classic piece of infrastructure grot. The Department of Energy and Climate Change are running a competition for the design of Electricity Pylons…..the UK has 88,000. At 50m tall, the “current” (no irony, no pun) design dates from 1927, the year of  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Lindbergh’s first trans-Atlantic flight. Why there never been a serious update I don’t know….perhaps it’s the survival of the cheapest. But now that our future renewable energy will be generated so far from our cities, we’ll have more and more pylons marching through our finest landscape, and no nimby will pay more for electricity just to bury the cables on someone else’s patch.

I’m on the pylon competition jury, and I expect a bunch of entries that are essentially sculpture, some that are big industrialised products, some no doubt lovely to look at.  But I’d hope to see at least some integrated entries, beyond Pevsner’s “building”, using the full range of aesthetic skill across all the senses, weaving as one across the landscape. And at least if Ken Grange can’t bear the outcome, he already has his escape route planned: in his hall he’s made himself a coffin-shaped bookcase that just needs the shelves taken out when he dies.

Ken told me he’d thought of making one for his wife too, but wants to live a long and happy life…..

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