Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Like A Motorway

Things magazine had an excellent piece recently about the way that the architectural media effectively elevates a tiny percentage of our built environment into 'Architecture'. Huge amounts of buildings are completely overlooked, as they do not fit into this narrow picture.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to's guide to the world's biggest car parks. Here is a building type clearly unlikely to make it into Architectural Review and yet, equally clearly, a ubiquitous and vast part of our built landscape. Most of the pictures are aerial photos, not the preferred viewpoint for most architectural photography, but probably the only way to capture the huge scale of these buildings/landscapes. The link takes you to number 6 in the hit parade; Disneyland's Mickey and Friends Parking Structure, which may or may not have been designed by Richard Meier.

Equally, the epic achievements of civil engineering tend to go almost unnoticed in contemporary conversations about our environment. Presumably as engineering they are somehow not considered products of 'culture' and are therefore not to be talked about by cultural commentators. There is a sense here that while art is fundamentally wilful, a product that has an author, who can therefore be criticised, engineering (and by extension all technological products) is logical and author-less, somehow the inevitable outcome of abstract forces operating outside our judgement.

This belief in the inevitability of the products of a technocratic culture, combined with the architectural media's distaste for the realities of our built environment, means that large portions of it go undiscussed, invisible to critical judgement. Even the smallest house extension can become the subject of extensive debate within architectural magazines, while vast tracts of land are sculpted into motorways and bridges and tunnels without comment, save perhaps for debates about the ecological issues involved.

This also means that the products of engineering not only go relatively undiscussed within a wider culture but can also be utterly hideous and no one would care. This is not an argument for Santiago Calitrava to design every footbridge in the country (quite the opposite. Not only do I not like Santiago Calitrava but I also consider something like the concrete bridges of the A1 quite beautiful, partly because of their municipal lack of pretension) but an observation that our critical faculties seem always to be trained on the same little spot, the same ant hill of rarified activity.

In his book Scale Will Self writes that the bridges and flyovers and cloverleaf junctions of our motorway system will one day appear as the ruins of an ancient civilisation. The notion that motorways represent some kind of cultural achievement has long evaporated from our consciousness. The heroic images of the opening of the M1, and the plummy voiced public service films advising people how to drive on these strange new multi lane highways that went with them are a product of an age less schizophrenic about the impact of technology, less scornful of its manifestations.

"The English Motorway system is both beautiful and strange" sang Black Box Recorder. Indeed, so bring on more reviews of infrastructure and motorways.


Addictive Picasso said...

Great post. Bummer is that a lot of this stuff can't easily be photographed. We need to lobby for scenic viewpoints of motorways.

Lang Rabbie said...

Apologies for accusing you of setting a false dichotomy between municipal lack of pretension and the likes of Calatrava on the comments page in "another place" rather than your own blog!

I think that one reason why there is no debate is because back in the days when the "usual channels" of the civil engineering and landscape architecture profession in Britain used to do it inhouse, by and large they did it remarkably well.

It is only since cost has become the only consideration in design/build projects that we have become aware of just how badly things can go wrong.

For some giant schemes, there would be a genteel bashing together of heads by CABE's predecessors at the Royal Fine Arts Commission (who were a lot more effective in exercising influence over public sector infrastructure projects than they were with commercial developers).

Charles Holland said...

No apologies required!

Yes, I think that's probably true... but there is also something in the issue of authorship i feel. one of the primary ways that architecture is discussed these days is through the cult of personality (unfortunately) which means that there the activities of a small number of people are over emphasised. civil engineering as the product of, as you say, local council engineering departments (back when they existed) tend to elude analysis because they don't have a single author. which means they have an invisibility in a way - a blessing and a curse. but also, as Sit down man points out, the destructive qualities go unexamined except by 'grass roots' opponents.

Paul Mison said...

On the narrow subject of car parks, there was actually a book published last year about The Architecture Of Parking, and the Guardian gallery of highlights provided plenty of fodder for sites like ffffound. Nonetheless, you're right; such infrastructure rarely gets the attention it deserves. Airports are, perhaps, one of those exceptions that proves the rule.