The Modernist no.30, Infrastructure

This short essay was published as the introduction to issue no.30 of The Modernist, Infrastructure. It makes the case for why the study of the design of infrastructure of the twentieth century is important, both in the recovery of design thinking and from a heritage perspective.

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As we have built an increasingly systems-based world, the use of the word infrastructure has become more prevalent. A search of the RIBA Library catalogue shows its earliest use in architectural periodicals by French experimental urbanist Yona Friedman in the mid 1960s.[1] It may seem unusual that infrastructure does not appear earlier in architectural literature, but its earliest use in the English language was only in 1927 and it was not common parlance until the 1950s, when it was most commonly applied to military situations.[2] It is derived from French and Latin and the prefix infra-, in its most literal translation, means below. In this sense, the infrastructure of pipes, wires, drains and tunnels that exist beneath the roads and pavements are easily understood – infrastructure is often thought of as invisible and that its presence is only fully realised when it fails. This is partially true, but of course infrastructural systems are made of material objects. We don’t often think about infrastructure as objects yet they are the first things we draw and codify in the maps we use to make sense of our geography.

OS map info

Tarmac aprons and steel ribbons of road and rail are easily overlooked, but then so are the monumental, yet ubiquitous, pylons, telecom masts, gasometers and cooling towers. Technological redundancy has accelerated in the computer age as processors replace switches and bitstreams override wave borne media. Thus, it is both the ubiquity and the redundancy that requires a new focus on the historic architecture, landscape and engineering design of infrastructure. Mainstream functional architecture exists in a sort of heritage hinterland – at once valueless and priceless – what is its worth once it has ceased to function? In Europe, the last major phase of infrastructural development was during the reconstruction processes that followed the Second World War. Britain invested heavily in roads, power and telecommunications, often with a dual civil-military purpose in the climate of the Cold War. Much of this development was necessarily at the edges of conurbations, though aerial motorways penetrated the hearts of many UK cities. In the nationalised state much of the design and delivery fell to the Ministry of Works and its successors. By the mid-1970s, the Department of the Environment’s Property Services Agency spent over £400m per year on more than 2500 projects.[3] These state sponsored endeavours were outside of the normal planning conditions and, as such, are difficult to research through local records. Accordingly, the design of built objects – pumping stations, telephone exchanges, substations and even power stations – remains under researched.

Infrastructure is where the fields of landscape, architecture and engineering meet one another, often in support of ambitious projects realised through collective means. In the post-war period large-scale government schemes were narrated as feats of engineering and focussed on ideas of taming nature or overcoming great obstacles in the drive for progress. The monumental scale of construction undoubtedly offered opportunities for political propaganda and in Awni Patni’s essay on dams in post-colonial India we see the idea of monumental infrastructure as techno-politics.[4] The politics of the Cold War also play a part in the predominantly socio-cultural picture that Sarah Feeney paints of espionage and spy swaps in Berlin. Approaching the study of infrastructure from a socio-cultural or political perspective is an established method used in the social sciences. Less commonly addressed are the spatial and material qualities of infrastructure in relation to design. The design of infrastructure is arguably more invisible than infrastructure itself. In this edition most of the collected essays examine infrastructure and its built forms – the materials, surfaces, details, the composition of buildings and landscape, their design and their meaning when they were new and what they mean now.

triangulation

Philip Etchells’ piece about the ‘trig pillars’ used by the Ordnance Survey in the retriangulation of Britain between 1935 and 1962 presents us with an infrastructure that is predominantly invisible. However, the literal concrete evidence of the act of mapping left over 6500 truncated obelisks scattered across the hilltops of Britain. The geometric infrastructure of mapped space and line-of-sight logic was also manifest in the siting and design of the concrete telecommunication towers discussed in Elain Harwood’s essay. Seven rural and suburban towers were built to a design known as ‘Chiltern’ – its form approved by the Royal Fine Arts Commission.[5] Some of these towers were visible from the growing motorway network and the distinctive futuristic silhouette of the horn reflector microwave aerials accentuated their formal similarities. The form and composition of the towers on the landscape was discussed in engineering journals, as were pylons in the 1920s.[6] Concrete was both structural and sculptural here.[7] The form of the ‘Chiltern’-type towers suggested their growing from the ground, a rootedness, and the notion of these as symbolic of fear, or a threat of the Cold War, was assuaged by ‘White Heat’ and progress.

M62 stylised map

Progress drove the development of the motorway network and in Kevin Crook’s photographs of the M62 and his reflective prose, ideas about space, landscape and the unlikely coalition of moorland and motorway come to the fore. In Crook’s images the moor and the engineering have equal weight in his approach to composition. It is this compositional sense that in part mimics the actions of the designers involved in the motorway achievement. At Scammonden close to the highest point of the motorway, engineers, architects, landscape architects and designers came together to create a unique agglomeration of elements, most notably the world’s first dam-motorway hybrid.[8] Its sensation was described in Design Journal in 1971:

‘In this short stretch the motorway climbs from the Outlane interchange with A640 up to Pole Moor, where it enters a series of small cuts with attractive stepped rock slides. The panorama opens out as the road turns on to Scammonden Dam and the new lake with its distinctive valve tower close to the road on the eastern bank. From this point the Deanhead cutting and Scammonden Bridge are clearly visible. In the cutting there are views of Blackstone Edge carrying the county boundary and the Pennine Way and, rounding a bend, the road stretching up to Windy Hill across Moss Moor. Here the carriageways split on sidelong ground and curve around a farmhouse, its chimney smoking and hens clucking as though nothing had happened in the last four years.’[9]

Landscape of Roads

This experience was not accidental, it was the result of a group of professionals working collaboratively with collective endeavour. Each element of the scene was part of the eventual composition. The role and influence of landscape architects in composition, especially that of Sylvia Crowe, runs through several of the essays here, most notably in Luca Csepely-Knorr’s text on Eggborough coal fired power station in North Yorkshire. The landscape at Eggborough was actually designed by Brenda Colvin but she and everybody since benefitted from the astute and pioneering writing and practice of Crowe. Several of the authors in this edition refer to her influence. Crowe’s seminal books, The Landscape of Power (1958) and The Landscape of Roads (1960) set the tone and the agenda for how to deal with the intrusion of large-scale infrastructure in all sorts of conditions.

Landscape of Power

Motorways traversed rural Britain, but also injected traffic into the hearts of many cities, cutting cross-sections through urban hinterlands and suburban belts. In his illustrated essay about the ‘space beneath’, Ray Newman explores Bristol’s M32 and the spatial by-products created by the primacy of motor transport in the post-war era. Of course, the space beneath is also materialised in the objects that bring subterranean infrastructure to the surface and this is examined in Michael Dring’s article on Birmingham New Street Signal Box. Dring brings our attention to the role of nationalisation and the design arms of various organisations as nurturing talent and providing exciting commissions in well-funded circumstances. Laura Coucill picks up this thread and discusses the brand identity of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and its influence on the development of the Magnox nuclear power stations. Both of these authors recognise the nature of technological redundancy, the associated practice of decommissioning and demolition and the attendant risks of removing large physical objects that are emblems of our shared socio-cultural heritage.

M62 Pennine sectionSuch ideas are explicit in Linda Ross’ photographs and prose reflecting on why the infrastructure of the Highlands is important to her personally and more broadly is testament to the histories of the people involved its making and use. All of the British subjects contained here can be described as having a municipal aesthetic. In post-war Britain, engineers, architects, landscape architects and designers reordered massive swathes of the countryside in state sponsored projects. In an era of nationalised industries, most infrastructure was controlled by large bodies with clear hierarchical structures. Infrastructure thus had its unifying features in typology, material language and visual culture. This form of cohesion was lost as the structures of government that enabled it were altered. The objects and landscapes of infrastructure are disappearing or ignored and with this we perhaps fail to consider what was represented by their presence. This edition of The Modernist then, is not a call to arms to defend functional buildings that have reached the end of their life, it is simply a request that we think about their design, the contexts within which they were constructed and the value attached to those things.

[1] Friedman, Y. (1966) ‘Development over a Paris terminal’, Architectural Design, January 1966: 6.

[2] Chambers’s Journal. 14 May 1927 374/2. ‘The tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure’ work generally of the Ax to Bourg-Madame line have been completed.’ Source: OED online < http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/95624?redirectedFrom=infrastructure&&gt; [Accessed 27 March 2013] Used in debate in the House of Commons: W. S. Churchill in Hansard Commons CDLXXVI. 2145   In this Debate we have had the usual jargon about ‘the infrastructure of a supra-national authority’. Source: OED online <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/95624?redirectedFrom=infrastructure&&gt; [Accessed 27 March 2013] Also, ‘Infrastructure’ The Manchester Guardian 21 Apr 1950: 6.

[3] ‘PSA in the Midlands’, in Architecture West Midlands, No. 28, December 1976: 2.

[4] Hecht, G. (2009). The radiance of France: Nuclear power and national identity after World War II. (Cambridge, MASS: MIT press)

[5] Creasy L.R., Adams H.C. & Silhan, S.G. (1965) ‘Radio towers’ in The Structural Engineer, Vol. 43, No.10, October 1965, pp.323-336.

[6] Dunne, A. (1999) Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical

Design (London: Royal College of Art)

[7] Millar J.B. (1965) ‘Reinforced-concrete radio towers’ in Post Office Electrical Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 58, No.10, October 1965, pp.178-181.

[8] Concrete Quarterly, Summer 1972, p.26

[9] Rowlands, D. (1971) ‘Motorways that take to the moors’, in Design Journal, April 1971, pp.58-65.

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