Why the landscapes of post-war infrastructure matter

This post is part of an article first published by the Landscape Journal, Spring 2020: Building infrastructure in the age of climate crisis

Manchester School of Architecture has been researching, analysing and teaching about the landscapes and architecture of post-war infrastructure

IMG_5333Scammonden, the world’s first dam-motorway hybrid. Landscape design by J. B Blainey (Photo: Richard Brook, 2018)

Infrastructure is popularly conceived as a form of material production assigned to technological advancement. However, it is not exclusively a technocentric endeavour, it is constituted by built artefacts designed through collaboration by those with more than simply an interest in its engineering. Infrastructure has the capacity to reveal much about the society in which it was produced – the political economy of infrastructure; the sociocultural effects of infrastructure; the formal and visual impact of infrastructure and attitudes to its celebration or containment. Rebuilding after 1945 was characterised by numerous large-scale infrastructural schemes, including electrical power generation, water infrastructure and the improved transportation delivered by new motorways. The scale of this development that transformed the perceptibly rural landscapes of Britain, was comparable to the changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. As Sylvia Crowe phrased it the landscape of Britain faced the “greatest crisis of its history”, and this necessitated a novel approach to design and implementation and a new collaborative practice between architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and planning professionals.[1]

Fig 1Eggborough power station. Landscape architects: Brenda Colvin & Hal Moggridge (photo: Luca Csepely-Knorr, 2018)

The profession of landscape architecture experienced a major shift in the UK after the WW2, in both the complexity and scale of projects. As Crowe claimed, “Before the war landscape design was confined almost entirely to the creation of gardens and parks; even if some industry called in a landscape architect it was with the idea of creating a garden round their buildings. […] Gradually this is changing: the pressure of population, transport and economics is upsetting the balance of great areas of landscape, and it is evident that positive design is needed to restore them to a state of balance.”[2] This shift from garden design to landscape planning and from the idea of creating a ‘garden round the buildings’ to designing large scale landscapes that accommodated complex new structures, typologies and activities created new challenges and placed the profession of landscape architecture at the forefront of the evolving field of infrastructural design.

Fig 5The Industry & Landscape Exhibition organised by the Institute of Landscape Architects. Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects, no 68, November 1964. p.15.

The creation of landscapes around post-war power stations was informed by Section 37 of the Electricity Act (1957), later dubbed the ‘Amenity Clause’. It required the minimisation of the impact of generating and transmission sites on scenery, flora and fauna, by creating aesthetic value as well ecologically important assets, and resulted in the appointment of landscape architects on new power station projects. In the same period the ‘public relation value’ of the landscapes of power stations became a crucial part of government policy that safeguarded the needs of communities and added another layer of cultural value to these landscapes.[3] In 1961, Michael Porter was appointed as the first Landscape Advisor to the Ministry of Transport. The 1973 Water Act also created a duty to promote ‘amenity’ by the Regional Water Authorities.[4]

Exhibitions and publications of the period, such as a series of articles in the Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects and, most notably, Sylvia Crowe’s books ‘The Landscape of Power’ (1958) and ‘The Landscape of Roads’ (1960) and the ‘Industry and Landscape’ Exhibition in 1964 showed the eminence of the question to the professional discourses in the field of landscape architecture.  In addition, they highlighted the prominent role that landscape architecture played in helping to ameliorate the public’s perception of infrastructural developments.[4] This new aspect of the profession was clearly recognised by Brenda Colvin, when she wrote that “..our power stations, oil refineries, factories and water-works must take their place, in time, with the pyramids, castles and temples of the past”.[5] The idea of the infrastructural and industrial landscapes as iconic undertakings of the period was reinforced by distinguished planner and founding member of the Institute of Landscape Architects, Lord Holford, when he positioned the work of the Central Electricity Generating Board as “the modern patron of landscaping art” and explained that “..the great landowners of the eighteenth century employed the founders of the profession, William Kent, Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton and their followers. Today the Generating Board engage practising landscape architects of the first rank and a new philosophy of landscape design is emerging, often experimental, sometimes inspired but always seeking a solution to complex problems”.[6]

The Landscape and Architecture of Post-War Infrastructure Research Group

The exemplary approach toward the landscapes of infrastructure left us with a rich and particularly valuable designed landscape heritage that is, however, often undervalued and overlooked. Today, when the decommissioning of coal-fired and nuclear power stations is underway, and peri-urban sites which are hosts to multiple forms of infrastructure are under development pressure, the urgency of understanding, mapping and protecting such land assets needs new frameworks and clear methodologies for decisionmakers.[7]

In February 2019, the Manchester School of Architecture hosted a two-day international workshop and conference funded by the Paul Mellon Centre on the ‘Landscape and Architecture of Post-War British Infrastructure’. These events brought together academics from a broad range of academic disciplines and, through its two keynote lectures by Elaine Harwood (Historic England) and Hal Moggridge (PPLI), aimed to compare the views of the historian with the direct experience of the designer.[8] The conclusion of the conference and the workshop highlighted the necessity of investigating the landscapes of infrastructure for several reasons. The apparent invisibility of landscape design in mature settings means that sites are being redeveloped, or lost, before their values are assessed and understood.

LandArchInfra2019 poster 02 copyConference poster. 2019.

The next steps of the research will be delivered during the next two years, in two major research projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their special call for ‘Landscape Decisions: Towards a new framework for using land assets’ programme.[9] The project is particularly concerned with the temporal aspects of landscape and the relationships between designed space and its assimilation with perceptibly natural and traditionally agricultural landscapes. It aims to understand how time and use can interact with landscape to create cultural and amenity value as well as valuable ecologies; the way in which policy helped to foster such conditions, and how the influence of current policy on the management and development of these landscapes. It will investigate how artistic and creative responses to the landscapes of infrastructure can help to narrate their cultural worth; and, will develop means of understanding of their seemingly intangible values by comparing and combining research methods in the arts and humanities. Project Partners include Historic England, The Gardens Trust, the Landscape Institute, Highways England, Natural England, International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Friends of the Landscape Library and Archives at Reading (FOLAR) and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL).

Research-led teaching at the Manchester School of Architecture

As part of the larger research project, Dr Laura Coucill and Dr Luca Csepely-Knorr coordinate the Arch.Land.Infra Research Methods unit for postgraduate students of the Manchester School of Architecture. The overarching aim of the Research Methods unit is to introduce a range of approaches for understanding, interrogating and researching the built environment. Within this framework, Arch.Land.Infra focuses on the post-war (1945-1980) histories of the various intersections between architecture and landscape architecture and capitalises on the opportunities research-based and research-tutored pedagogy offers. Through archival research, combined with design analysis techniques, the output of Arch.Land.Infra included a series of four, detailed, case studies of UK Power Stations designed in between 1950 – 1970 by key architects and landscape architects. Case studies and accompanying models were exhibited during the workshop and conference on the ‘Landscape and Architecture of Post-War British Infrastructure’.

Fig 6Case study locations. Drawing by Arch.Land.Infra Research Methods students at the Manchester School of Architecture.

The case studies were: Didcot A (1965-1968, architect and landscape architect Sir Frederick Gibberd), Rugeley B (1964-1972, architects L K Watson and H J Coates, landscape architect Brenda Colvin), West Burton (1961-1967, architect Architects’ Design Group – John Gelsthorpe, landscape architect Derek Lovejoy) and Trawsfynydd (1959-1965, architect Sir Basil Spence, landscape architect Sylvia Crowe). Students benefited from archival and exhibition workshops and talks, in addition to an in-depth interview with Hal Moggridge about his experience in designing and delivering plans for large-scale infrastructural landscapes; offering first-hand experience of core research methods and the opportunity to engage with external partners in a professional working context. Students worked directly with the Gibberd Archives and the Landscape Institute Archives at MERL, documenting and analysing archival resources. Analysis took creative forms and built on representational and design skills to articulate research findings through diagrams, maps, drawings and models.

[1] Crowe, S. (1958) Landscape of Power, London: Architectural Press. p.10.

[2] Crowe, S Buckingham Talk, unpublished. MERL AR CRO SP4/2.

[3] Goulty, G. (1986) Landscape Electric, Landscape Design, August 1986, pp.34-37.

[4] Aldous, T. & Clouston, B. (1979) Landscape by Design London: William Heinemann Ltd. p.79.

[5] Colvin, B. (1970) Land and Landscape. London: John Murray, 344.

[6] CEGB: Power and the Countryside. CEGB London: 1965.

[7] This urgency is underlined campaign by Historic England and The Gardens Trust. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/apply-for-listing/listing-priorities/modern-gardens-landscapes/

[8] For conference abstracts see: http://www.postwarinfrastructure.org

[9] https://nerc.ukri.org/research/funded/programmes/landscape/#xcollapse4

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