Journey's end

The Architecture of British Transport in the 20th Century

Edited by Julian Holder and Steven Paris

In 1997, Steven Parissien, co-editor of this book, produced a sumptuous volume on the history of the train station, encompassing all the great railway cathedrals of the late 19th century. It is a book that I have spent many hours drooling over. The present volume is a much more low-key affair, being limited to the mainly unheroic (if not plain squalid) arena of British transport in the 20th century.

For Gavin Stamp, in an essay on early 20th-century stations, the Forth Bridge, "so much more advanced and useful than the Eiffel Tower", marked the end of railway exuberance. Shortly afterwards came what he describes as the "muddle" of Waterloo, rebuilt over 20 years from 1900 onward, but still not given any identity. Ask yourself: what does Waterloo look like from the outside? I'll wager that no picture comes to mind. The glumness continues with Stamp's account of the saga that led to the destruction in 1962 of the Euston Arch, which lies, incidentally, in numbered pieces in the River Lea ready to be rebuilt by Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, in mitigation for - and with some of the money from - the phasing out of the Routemaster buses.

In his chronicle of "decline and demoralisation", Stamp reserves most of his words of praise for the architecture department of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which missed its chance with Euston but produced modern, simple, streamlined stations such as Hoylake in the Wirral, built in the late 1930s.

The LMS men were influenced by the rational aesthetic of Charles Holden, whose Underground stations make him the one true hero of British transport architecture in the 20th century. Susie Barson, in her essay on Holden, provides tantalising quotations. The first requirement, Holden stated, was a clear sign to tell you the location of the station, and then an entrance "that could not be anything else". It is such a lovely, limpid voice that you want more of it.

In "Reappraising British Railways", Elain Harwood identifies some modernist gems of the mid-century when, shortly after nationalisation, optimism and the promise of proper funding briefly flickered on the network. She praises Coventry Station's "high, light concourse" and the "particularly careful discipline in the timber detailing of the handrails, dados and framed platform buildings". Perhaps that is why I was slightly less depressed on Coventry Station the other week than I had expected to be.

The richest essay in the book is "Arrivals and Departures", Neil Bingham's piece on inter-war civil airport architecture. Early airports sought to be as exciting as the flying machines that exemplified, for Le Corbusier, "the new machine civilisation". One such was Heston Air Park, opened in Middlesex in 1929. From the air, it looked like a plane, with lines of hangars forming the "wings". Bingham also observes that Ramsgate Airport, built in 1937, looked like the wing-only aeroplanes depicted in the film The Shape of Things to Come, released the previous year.

Most airport architects were pilots, and the fascinatingly named Whitney Straight - pilot and racing driver - created an airport design consultancy in 1935. His gliding expert was Christopher Nicholson, champion glider, Modern architect and brother-in-law of Barbara Hepworth. He built the headquarters of the London Gliding Club near Dunstable, "the Modern game played at its most advanced level".

Early airport architects were conscious that the structures could be seen from all angles, including above. Yet Heathrow is a sprawling mess whatever way you look at it. In writing about airports constructed during the last decades of the 20th century, Colin Davies toys with the idea that Heathrow ought to be regarded as a city, but soon gives up on that ("no centre, no streets"). He goes on to praise Stansted, built by the keen amateur pilot Norman Foster. This was a return to a dynamic, Boy's Own idea of an airport: a single-storey building on the edge of a field.

The architecture of early motoring was also created on a modernist "high". David Jeremiah describes the Mitchell Motor Garage in Wardour Street, London, which was built on five storeys in 1906, the cars being moved by lifts and turntables. It was designed for theatregoers, and pre-dated commuting by car, so garaging - as parking was then called - was half-price in the daytime. But the golden age of motoring architecture was short-lived. Most bus and coach stations were perfunctory, al-though, as Julian Holder argues, not the one at Derby, with its fluid, modern lines.

As for the motorway service station, this seems like a subject for camp appreciation rather than aesthetic approval. According to David Lawrence, the one built in 1967 by Kett and Neve at Trowell on the M1 was notable not so much for its "somewhat mannered monitor roof lights and glazing details" as it was for being themed as a "Robin Hood village".

My own conclusion, after reading this stimulating and well-written book, is that architects have not been inspired by cars to the degree that they once were - and quite frequently still are - by aeroplanes and trains. And who can blame them?

Andrew Martin's latest novel is The Blackpool Highflyer (Faber & Faber)