Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fahr'n Fahr'n Fahr'n

Last week, I spent some time on the motorway. Due to a combination of cowardice, principle and mostly, personal preference for public transport, this is not something that happens often. But to get to Glasgow in order to write one of these on the Second City Of Empire, we decided, in retrospect bafflingly, to hire a car, which was driven by Jeeves, sorry, Joel, for some 20 hours there and back. This was a fairly novel experience for me, with the last time I spent anywhere near as long on a road being somewhere in childhood, so the following may have the sound of a Martian visitor to the Motorway network. The first thing you notice here, unlike on the railways, where towns, suburbs, and most of all sheds provide punctuation for the countryside, is space - sheer, useless, unused space, which is often - though as I will get to, not always - surely ripe for having our glorious cities of the future constructed on it, as absolutely fuck all seems to be happening to it otherwise. This empty space goes on forever, utterly featureless, and, if you have the right music on and are in an appropriate frame of mind, it is thrilling. Going along the A1, noting the geometries of concrete bridges, skeletal pylons ('bare like nude giant girls that have no secret') and floodlights, with the green at each side as abstract as the asphalt, it's only when you're deep into Yorkshire that you notice any difference from the Hertfordshire landscape where you began. There are, we know, business parks and distribution centres nearby, but they'll be off road, reached by a complex series of junctions and sliproads. The A1 was a fine (accidental) choice, with a lack of traffic enhancing the sense of space, and service stations hugging the road rather than involving the loops round roundabouts of proper motorway service stations.

Rather than the Costas that besmirch the M1, the A1 is Little Chef territory, and seemingly any building can be commandeered by them and turned into succour for the traveller - 1920s roadhouses, 80s vernacular, 50s futurism. We had programmed the hired car's GPS (with which the driver maintained the requisite flirtatious dialogue, which gradually degenerated into an argument between a tired married couple) to guide us to the services at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, because therein is a building by one Sam Scorer, one of Britain's few representatives of Googie. A sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid containing the branch of Little Chef, playing all the games now expected from decon/regen but for the sake of sheer spectacle and capitalist potlatch rather than as edification, it is enormously striking after several hours of straight lines. Inside the Little Chef we note that the place has had something of a makeover of late, in that it has become self-conscious, marketing proper English comfort food with classic cafe imagery and a familiar Eric Gill-esque typeface on the menu. The Olympic Breakfast was excellent, bar a freakishly oversized and greasy mushroom. Outside, Murphy speculates that the Little Chef is a later insertion into the parabolic roof - well, it turns out that originally the roof enclosed nothing at all, being a mere gateway for cars on the way to a garage - a ceremonial, non-functional architecture.

The North is designated by the shadows of Cooling Towers and Power Stations, frequently right by the road, structures so stark and imposing that any carbon emission-based concerns must be dropped for a few minutes of awe. The landscape gradually starts to mutate, and then the motorway traverses Cumbria as we approach dusk, a darkly cinematic landscape of burial mounds and sudden changes in scale, becoming even more sinister until we take the M8 and get our first glimpses of Glasgow, with the motorway bisecting serried rows of tower blocks, like one of Ludwig Hilberseimer's urban schemes realised in the wrong order and illuminated by seedy sodium lights. More of that later. On the way back we visit what is surely the diametric opposite of the Googie Little Chef: what can only be described as the Innocent Service Station, Tebay Services, which helpfully has a panoramic view as part of its website. Designed in 1972 and in proper contextual vernacular fashion out of stone and timber, the real interest is inside, where Urban Splash white walls and jolly writing which is surely by the same designer as the Innocent Smoothie enclose a range of organic food, Keep Calm and Carry On chocolate bars, and numerous hoorays taking their little Tarquins to sample what is apparently the best tea in England. That something so clearly pleased with itself should be so obviously complicit in the polluting (by all of us in there, whether using the loos or buying local sausages) of the very countryside it fetishises is another example of the pointlessness of irony.

On the M6 we pass underneath the viewing bridges of T.P Bennett's Forton Services, the most famous of the Futurist buildings that originally accompanied the motorway network before we decided to ensure that environmental destruction was in keeping. In order to complete the review of service stations that we had been accidentally composing, we were intent on finding an OK Diner (warning: contains soundtrack), of which there are several along the A1, all of them in chrome and vitrolite, making clear that the A1 is the S&M Cafe of the motoring world, a simulation of pre-1979 England for the benefit of popculture nostalgics. Unfortunately we don't manage to go to any, so eventually resort, starved and nearly hallucinating, to a McDonalds next to a Travelodge somewhere near Peterborough. As we pull into the drive-in at this ungodly hour, our driver asks the middle-aged McAssistant how he is. 'I'm here' is the reply.


Anonymous Zone Styx Travelcard said...

I ate at a Little Chef on the A303 last week & had the same thought re comfort food and Eric Gill. I thought it might have been down to Heston Blumenthal in his new role as menu consultant, but after Googling it, seems his suggestions (braised ox cheeks etc) haven't yet been introduced.

4:06 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

You were obviously in an unobservant frame of mind, Owen.

In the stretches of the A1 and A1(M) that haven't been completely reconstructed for lane widening, the bridge designs from the 1950s and 1960s change between counties.

In those paradaisical days before the advent of the Highways Agency, each County Council architects department undertook the work separately on behalf of the Department for Transport.

The remaining Nottinghamshire structures were more elegant than others further south.

4:58 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh don't get me wrong, the bridges changed a lot, and fascinatingly so - the dynamic, futuristic ones with the splayed columns, the arch-shaped designs (though I could work out little consistency between areas, except that local stone started being used in Yorkshire, rather bizarrely) but the landscape around seemed to change fairly little until somewhere around Doncaster. However I may have been lulled by road travel into a state of atypical unobservancy.

5:33 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

Two things;
I still disagree with your comment about the uselessness of much space; England is an utterly artificial landscape, and without wanting to get all green-belt-y about it, most of that land is (or ought to be) agricultural... I've heard Tories make similar arguments...
And the sodium lights; I've never been anywhere where the transfiguring qualities of night were so strong as in Glasgow. I don't know what it was, surely they weren't using a different light design, but the Glasgow light is special even after dark...

7:02 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...maybe it's the sheer northernness of the city having some sort of effects on the light, perhaps there are similar sights to be seen in Oslo or Toronto...(conjecture alert)

As to the use/useless question, well first of all I never denied, even when tired after 7 hours on the A1, the artificiality of said landscapes, and I maintain that at least partially changing the situation where around 80% of the population live on around 20% of the land need not be a Tory or LM/Libertarian position, nor even one in favour of suburbanisation - but in the current context it most certainly would be.

10:04 pm  
Anonymous namhenderson said...

and hence the beauty/attraction of a hellhole like LA.

4:07 am  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:08 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

To Owen & Lang Rabbie

I didn't know about the County Council influence on bridge building along the A1. Is this the same for the M1? I've recently noticed the M1 bridges in Leicestershire and South Derbys are perhaps a little more elegant than the Barney Rubble slabs in Notts - but I think that maybe because the London - Leicestershire stretch of the M1 was at first designed by Sir Owen Williams? Not sure.

Dirty elegance?


Barney Rubble Slabs



To Owen & Murphy:

Roads and their embankments often hide the surrounding landscape, but if you look closely enough you might also notice geology and watershed, and how these affect agriculture, industry and building materials. The Pesvner guides are usually good for this. There is a great list of copyright free (although old) geology maps on the University of Southampton's web.


So when driving between Newark and Worksop, you would have been traveling over the flat alluvial plains of the Trent Valley and then up the rolling clay vales to the dry heathlands of Sherwood; from pockets of formally predominately agricultural villages to the (also formally) deep coal mining communties of the twentieth century...

From this at Newark:
To this at Harworth:

I'm all for building social housing in the countryside, and maybe it would be a good idea if such buildings were designed with respect to the topography - like the Gleadless estate I guess.


Oh, and here's another hyperbolic paraboloid at Lincoln

3:12 pm  
Blogger Ned Trifle said...

Huge pity you didn't get to an OK Diner would have been v. interested in your opinion (there's a map on their website you know...). Went to one to-day actually, great service, decent food, and absolutely packed. We had to queue for a table.

11:16 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

Only just spotted Chris Matthew's first comment.

I wish I could truthfully say that the Nottinghamshire bits of the M1 are different because my mum did them and being a very practical woman she told the engineers to cut the unnecessary fripperies.*

In fact the difference is because north of Stanton-by-Dale the coal beds come to the surface and there is a history of coal workings. Therefore all the structures had to be designed for potential movement.


(*She worked as the secretary in the site office for that section - sadly we don't have any pictures in her daily get up of a beehive to rival Marge Simpson and wellington boots for her daily trip in the back of a JCB between the nearest bus route and the site portacabins!)

12:56 am  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

Cheers Lang,

Nice web archive thingy

- ah the history subsidence has influenced Nottingham's modernism is more ways than one then. Do you know about CLASP schools?

I will post on this in the future:


(Sorry for my slow reply, I always dread somebody posting something dreadful, I need to get over it I think. Blog fear.)

9:05 am  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

Do you know about CLASP schools?

I had all the dubious pleasure of being educated in one.

A great range of sporting and leisure facilities built at low cost, but the thermal perforamnce left a bit to be desired!

Is it any wonder that I don't share ALL of Owen's keenness for the wonders of pre-fabrication.

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