What irked John Betjeman more than anything was a lack of respect for the mundane. Roads are a good example. In his ‘Men and Buildings’ feature that ran in the Telegraph between 1958 and 1964 he discussed topics as diverse as signage and quality of lighting to planners and their ineptitude in allowing new roadside buildings to be constructed that lacked sensitivity to their surroundings.
Signs and lighting perhaps, will always be a contentious issue. Indeed today there are so many signs that a scholarly journal on the subject is wanting. Meanwhile roadside lights are either being turned off to save energy or upgraded with hyper-efficient LED bulbs – both options seem to create annoyance amongst local residents. Another provocative topic is the ever increasing amount of infrastructure that supports the road network. Fixed amongst rotting road-kill and widowed hub-caps are bollards, barriers, speed cameras, electronic signs, weather stations and a whole catalogue of painted markings. Where dominant power lines and telegraph poles used to incur the purists wrath, now its wind turbines, some still seeking retrospective planning permission, many towering over listed heritage assets, most spoiling England’s natural beauty.
To be fair all these intrusions require elements of skill in their design but few of us really connect with the fact during our daily commutes. Buildings however are different, they are more tangible objects that we can learn to love or hate −some have understandably become statutory listed assets.
The parasol canopies of Esso filling station (right) on the A6 at Birstall, Leicestershire, for example, by Eliot Noyes who worked alongside Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer no less, remains an inspirational futuristic piece of 1960s industrial design. Preston Bus Station, built in 1969 by Building Design Partnership to rival the glamour of less affordable air travel, has recently been listed thanks to a gargantuan effort from campaigners. Its listed status transforms our acceptance of this Brutalist structure from a useless concrete folly worthy of demolition to an aesthetic masterpiece whose vertical rows of sculptural fins rebound the light the like flames around a heat exchanger. Perhaps the most unthinkable listing is the former Forton Service Station on the M6 near Lancaster, built in 1964 by T.P Bennett and Son, with a novelty hexagonal tower that once housed a restaurant.
Yet, the survival of concrete buildings is a game of two halves. Gone are the striking, multi-levelled, angular Brutalist car park and shopping centre combo’s the Tricorn Centre (1966-2004) in Portsmouth and the Trinity Square (1967-2010), so-called Get Carter car park (below), in Gateshead. The architect of both buildings, Owen Luder, once said that such structures gave ‘you a feeling from your balls to your throat’. That they do. At their best they are inspiring and engaging, shocking and threatening. At their worse they are a muggers and vandals delight, with copious hiding places emanating from the cold, dark, twisting, spittle and gum soiled unforgiving corridors.
There is no doubt that these iconic buildings were evocative of an age. They were the fruits of short, authoritative, black and white men in highly-coloured bow-ties; a Betjemanic class of gentleman architect and ruthless planner, lyrical advocates of backfilling dear old England with tons of concrete. Ironically their enduring legacy was to separate man from machine, thereby creating a safe-haven from traffic, a freedom to roam unfettered by congestion and pollution. Soon the car was banished from post-war reconstructed city centres like Southampton and Plymouth. At last the towns and cities were being liberated from traffic, drifting slowly towards a new era of pedal and pedestrian power.
Fortunately our national heritage list has not overlooked the mundane. The Abbey Road zebra crossing, a shrine for ‘mop tops’ of all shapes and sizes, is now listed, as are many post-boxes and classic K2 telephone boxes, a reminder, for our children at least, of low-tech, hard-wired, technology. What, I wonder, would the ashen faced, space suited, Ziggy Stardust think today if he ever found his way back into a K2 box? Rather than a vandalised analogue telephone covered in vomit he might have a use for a defibrillator or community library.