Cable cars for the movement of people are really rather well developed. There is little that is fancy about them. The hardware, although being constantly refined, is fairly straightforward and to an untrained eye such as mine, really rather quaint. A car hangs from a constantly circulating cable and at the point where you’d like to get off, so does the car, and decelerates towards your platform.
Certainly it can be more complicated. Like the railway it can be configured for fast-through, non-stopping units and mid-line turnbacks that on occasions are a benefit to the occupants and the line capacities. Like the railway, even in these configurations the hardware remains comparatively simple, while the software does the clever stuff.
The basics are all generously covered in numerous websites, the best of which I have so-far found being here.
This is a pleasing discovery, for as you may recall, and if you don’t you will find it here, my interest was to examine the opportunity for an affordable, low energy, high benefit resolution to local public transport network in a post-Covid environment. The scale, capabilities and technical simplicity of the cable car system continues to meet that aim.
You may also recall that I had proposed the idea of using the cable car system in its ‘off-peak’ periods for goods distribution and, in the other direction, managed recycling. I’d referenced National Rail with its passengers and freight, as distinct from London Underground and the DLR which on occasions run largely empty.
This is not innovation, I only have to look out of my window here in the heart of Luxembourg steel manufacturing to see the benefits of suspended ropeways in the movement of Terres Rouge to the railways and furnaces that supported 20C European growth, not to mention a few wars. The ropeway was invented to carry goods not people. It was señor Torres-Quevedo that saw the potential and, having more recently been purloined by the good burgers of the Austrian Tyrol in the support of tourism, the buckets just got fancier and the systems safer, while the European miners exhausted their seams.
I then came across this article, with the NLA promoting an urban logistics forum which seeks an integration of uses – goods distribution and residential development in the example, but doubtless not excluding a similar symbiotic pact with public transport. The ambition is for greater availability of distribution centres closer into the city, in much the same geographical settings as those in need of local public transport networks such as Docklands, where the radial systems spread too thin and the highways circumnavigate the metropolis.
Like the cable car technology, a Google search indicates that the developed hardware of modern logistics is similarly and pleasingly straightforward, with the software doing the heavy lifting yet again.
It takes little to imagine how this mutualism would work, with the equipment already developed to automate pallets and containers in and out of racks and cable cars using a simple structural grid to support the passenger platforms above, and some clever software to identify the presence and destination of goods, people and discarded cardboard.
Within a network that connects areas of mixed employment, production and consumption, as is both occurring and proposed in the Estates and Opportunity Areas of London Docklands, the potential is evident.
So I sketched some of it, to see how big it all becomes in locations previously identified if not yet proven.
I appreciate it’s not my land, but for a system with so much potential it seems fairly low impact compared to the railway infrastructure I am more used to. The next thing to do is of course to put some numbers to it all and, while I have a reasonable estimate of the passenger matrices, the potential logistics capacities and construction costs are still to be understood.
If anyone wants to throw their professional hat at this, I’d be pleased to hear from you.
Safeguarding the Cable Car network; same principles, new constraints.
As with most new transport proposals seeking to open up or benefit from regions of cities that may be subject to piecemeal development, the principle of safeguarding should come early in the proposals. This is not, as some believe, an authority that denies opportunities, but rather one that seeks to combine the needs of transport providers and the desire of developers to ensure a mutually beneficial arrangement of structures otherwise vying for the same space.
Safeguarding is helpful because it’s helpful to the councils and developers to have and respond to new public transport, it’s helpful to the transport promoters to gain long term certainty, and it’s helpful to those of us that are eager to encourage and support joined up thinking in the planning of our cities. It’s what happened on the NLE, what we most recently did on Crossrail 2, and what we didn’t do on the BLE until very late last year for reasons I never quite understood.
The safeguarded route is a socio-economic business case underlain by technical capability. In preparing a safeguarded route there are many people to consult and many socio-economic views to filter and adopt. For the purposes of our network and as we languish in Covid-isolation I have assumed the OAPFs provide a strong foundation born of just such a process.
For most recent public transport schemes in London, the underlying technical criteria for the safeguarded route are for structures that underlie our city, with areas of surface interest defined where a station, a ventilation/intervention shaft or a portal would ideally pop-up. The determining factors in between are geology, utilities, sub-structures, speed/curvature, track gradients, platform widths and the like. The cable car system is in many ways less technically demanding than these proposals, and in a few ways more so.
The cable car needs far less surface space to construct and operate than all those tunnels and shafts, but it doesn’t offer the flexibility of horizontal radii between its areas of surface interest with which to skirt around the impenetrable.
Unlike Crossrail and BLE, the paths between cable car stations must be straight, rather than ideally straight, and of course the routes of all considerate infrastructure should be untrammelled by things it can’t jump over or dodge under and therefore need to remove.
The cable car route doesn’t have the equivalent of clay layers to aim for and sand lenses to avoid, while it’s structure-evading gradients are pronounced; 45 degrees changes your altitude dramatically if the need arises.
Structures tunneled underground but as close to the surface as practical have matters of ground born acoustics and ground bearing subsidence to address, while the cable cars, being suspended and relatively silent, nevertheless have to gain acceptance for their looks and their overlooking.
In our region the cable cars do have occasional but defined zones of air to avoid, be they for shipping or aircraft, in much the same way as tunnels seek to avoid London’s environmentally delicate and less-well determined thirst-quenching aquifers.
There is also the not small matter of local reference, for while the Crossrails, NLEs and BLEs remain eagerly awaited despite their delays, disruption and burgeoning costs, London’s only cable car had a spirited but ultimately more nuanced reception. But that said, we now have far stronger reasons for the need, and we press on…
Just like the Crossrail/BLE/NLE proposals, our network has a primary need to carefully consider where the stations are placed, that they should serve the people and the uses that are most benefiting and beneficial.
I noted previously the reams of virtual paperwork that record and promote the many Opportunity Areas identified for our region, all based on Good Growth aspirations and long evenings of local consultation. Having been encouraged by their ambition and by the broader benefits capture opportunities recognised in the new Green Book, my cable car route objectives are that the stations should not simply encourage expanded and complementary living and working opportunities; but they should now be concerned with people and goods travelling between and around well designed urban locations that enable a whole-life function – from home to work to play to services, from production to distribution to delivery to disposal – all within a socially and environmentally sustainable network that’s enjoyable too.
And of course our route also seeks interchange with onward travel for we don’t just wish to Make Docklands Great Again by some self-serving means, but to offer our services beyond our borders and to provide opportunities for others to come and enjoy, to enhance and to benefit from our region as it develops its many latent and environmental strengths.
I have now delved deeper into each Opportunity Area, and I have sourced some mapping, albeit doubtless out of date before I started and changed again before I posted it here. I have overlaid the physical, urban and societal ambitions for the various neighbourhoods with a cable car network that enhances, while not altering or critiquing, the hard-worked opportunities identified.
Out of this I have drawn some more tangible proposals for a cable car network, knowing full well that drawing anything elicits challenge and as such may be used as a focus and a target for comment and a medium for adjustment. These are a first step for defining and safeguarding the opportunities the cable car provides.
The Canada Water development has two multi-storey car parks. I am old enough to remember when these were considered to be a good thing. Temptingly, they are to be located next to the NR station providing helpful interchange, and fortunately they present an interface between the new retail and residential areas on the Town Square at the confluence of two very straight lines to Millwall Docks and Canary Wharf. An ideal location for the most westerly of our cable car passenger stations and the furthest node of our goods distribution network.
Heading north east our pink line becomes the much-debated and ultimately unsuccessful continuous river crossing between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf, and links the public-transport-poor areas of Rotherhithe to the DLR and my new Crossrail station. With the aspirations for megatowers where once there were fish, I’m expecting things to get busy at the North Dock and have two pink stations to absorb the flows, spread the load and turn the corner. The megatowers will also demand goods and generate waste, and the GLA OAPF is eager to see this controlled innovatively and centrally. Heading south west the pink line therefore lands at the primary people and goods distribution stations, close to the O2 Arena, the Emirates cable car, the A2 and within recycling distance of the river barges.
The Blue line heads west from Canada Water, stopping as needs be to connect to river boats before crossing the river to attract, service, enliven and encourage the peninsula population of the seamless housing and the new opportunities that fringe Millwall Basin. The GLA proposal for a new neighbourhood centre with onward bus routes, where now an unlovely but probably much needed Sainsbury shed sheds blight on the urban landscape, is given enhanced purpose with its accessible neighbourhood now spreading out of the peninsula across the river to the east and west. Unsurprisingly the Blue line also arrives at the primary people and goods distribution stations at North Greenwich.
Turn right and the Black line heads past the new biscuit brick, too-closely spaced mono-purpose tower developments of North Greenwich into the industrial shed jungle that comprises north Charlton. The GLA aspirations for Charlton are not considerable. While it is good to see that the existing employment is maintained and supported, the existing miserable PTAL is also largely assumed, and there is probably an underlying fear of flooding that, counterintuitively, causes the housing aspirations to be low rise. I don’t have a difficulty with this, from a taste perspective the biscuit sandwiches in North Greenwich are not my cup of tea, but some balance of density and improved PTAL introduced by the cable car is surely needed before anything happens at all. And when it does happen, at least the character of the new neighbourhoods are planned to be varied and diverse. I have hope for this response to Good Growth. The Black line then crosses the river to North Woolwich to provide a walkable connection to the Green line, offering respite to the otherwise linear pattern of north Charlton, trapped on the marshes between the river and the North Kent lines, and in anticipation of a future short hop to Beckton and Thamesmead.
The Green line presently completes the radiating and encircling nature of our cat’s cradle network. It provides the north shore link between London City airport and Canary Wharf through the Enterprise Zone and Cultural Hub that is Royal Docks via the industrial and emerging housing areas that lie along the river. The airport has ambitions to expand not only its flight timetable but its goods handling. Tate & Lyle won’t be slow to realise the potential of its swathe of riverside land. ExCel is proposing to expand eastwards to accommodate post-Nightingale growth.
Inevitably the OAPF’s European and sales exhibition travellers, its omnipresent ‘creatives’ and its enterprising production prospects will require onward interchange and distribution. The primary people interchange is again Crossrail and DLR, with the new DLR station adjacent to the GLA HQ being a further interchange or a cost saving. The northern goods distribution centre straddles the space between the viaducts of the DLR and Silvertown Way, in easy reach of the A12 and A13 and adjacent to the Docklands Waste Disposal centre and its access to the river. Our western station joins the Pink line amongst the megatowers of South Poplar, with the opportunity for a short northward hop to the wider range of employment prospects in Lea Valley.
Within our cat’s cradle some 200,000 new homes and 200,000 new jobs are forecast. If our network was based on the La Paz Teleferico our 18km cable car route could carry 32,000 people each hour. With the off-peak potential for transporting goods the passenger journey could be low cost, the number of white vans could be reduced, and the urban and environmental benefits would enable more pleasurable walking and cycling. As part of a multi-modal and multi-functional solution to urban integration and the opening up of new opportunities without substantial investment the cable car pulls above its weight. How does it all work on the ground? David and I are now immersed in AI, networks and moving block passenger and goods handling, and will report as the ideas evolve.
My new year break has been spent exploring the numerous cable car proposals that are beginning to emerge. Usually discreet but functionally and topographically similar to the context of east London, Europe already has its fair share. One in Vancouver is already recognising the benefits in a Covid world.
Google is also awash with the various development and infrastructure proposals that border the River Thames, many of which were the context of my earlier foray into cable car considerations, so please bare with me for the next few paragraphs.
Each of the development proposals has been reported at length and widely published. Most are progressing slowly or are temporarily on ice as they await the demise of Covid and the inevitably cautious resurgence of funds and travelling people. The GLA, local authorities and private enterprise are certainly not short of ambition for the region, with copious proposals that explore and promote the potential for dockland regeneration and the opportunities for the much-needed swathes of new housing.
First impressions are that there is a striking similarity between the proposals. Apart from the not unpleasant but unerringly homogeneous visual language, and a slightly troubling emphasis and reliance on an influx of creative young family types, the housing and urban essence of the proposals seem to closely adhere to the London Plan. However, the London Plan also recognises that diverse neighbourhoods, characters, age, skills and social offering underpin London as an attractive global city. The principles of the London Plan avert the potential for another Thamesmead. The London Plan promotes Good Growth, including the benefits of demographic diversity, breadth of uses, availability of essential services and opportunities for employment and connectivity that caters for all ages and situations. Hopefully these less directly profitable nuances will become more evident as the proposals develop and each area begins to evolve into a richly textured and distinctly identifiable neighbourhood.
In a fanciful moment I even surmised that my cable car carrying cat’s cradle that connects these areas may also be a metaphor for a net of social, functional, environmental, architectural, planning and funding considerations that appear to be required to drive individuality, mutual benefit and economic reciprocity between the proposals. But that’s for another day; I decided instead to focus on their transport connections.
Read together, and with one eye on my cable cars, there is similarly a degree of similarity in the Opportunity Area transport proposals. On the one hand this makes sense, but it inevitably raises some questions. The pent-up demand in Thamesmead, together with the proposed Peabody-Lendlease developments, will benefit from and absorb a not insubstantial portion of the increased capacity of the recently commissioned DLR extension and its long anticipated new rolling stock. This is the same increased capacity promised to support the plans for the Royal Docks and part of that promised to assist in the development of South Poplar. It is inevitable that the extension of the Elizabeth line to Ebbsfleet will generate growth in North Kent, but this will inevitably absorb a significant proportion of the inner London train capacity before it reaches Custom House and Canary Wharf. Will the demands of development at Canada Water finally exhaust the Jubilee line, or is it assumed that the long awaited and oft-deferred increased frequency of new rolling stock will arrive in time? Does the new Rotherhithe/Canary Wharf ferry really satisfy the forecast demands that drove the exploration of the now abandoned lifting bridge? Does an extra bus route or two through Charlton really cater for the potential scale of the new population? Can the omnipresent reliance on walking and cycling satisfy the needs of multi-generational neighbourhoods?
It is inevitable that, should the investment be available to deliver the Jubilee, Elizabeth, DLR and bus enhancements large steps will be achievable in some areas. It is also evident that this investment will now take many years to secure and that additional, more rapid and more affordable solutions are needed to avoid further years of studies, further years of torpor, or worse, another Thamesmead.
– • –
In much the same area as is addressed by these development plans, the cable cars of La Paz have a two-way hourly capacity of 30,000+ passengers, each of whom accept the cable car as the primary and suitably efficient means of public transport. While it is a tad strained to directly compare Bolivia to the UK, the cost of delivery of 20km of La Paz cable car was just shy of the anticipated price of one lifting bridge across the Thames. In replacing a substantial proportion of the clog of buses that pollute the La Paz streets the cable car system stands on its own one foot, both environmentally and economically, and the benefits have been achieved rapidly and with minimum land take.
La Paz Teleferico has been inserted into an existing and tightly packed urban context. In and around our nascent Opportunity Areas there may be more that can be achieved.
Within the emerging OAPFs there is a notable demand for directly encouraging and servicing local employment and production, and there is a desire to ensure the quality of the air meets the environmental aspirations of the expanding population. A cable car system is quite capable of carrying goods as well as people (and bikes and mobility scooters and prams and construction materials). It is quite possible to design the cable car system on the basis of a National Rail rather than an LU/DLR; carrying passengers yes, but also goods and so reducing the passage of white vans transiting the region, while still encouraging the range of products/employment. Such a multi-functional cable car system would extend the useful daily life of the cat’s cradle and potentially offset (zero?) the ticket prices.
Within the Isle of Dogs and South Poplar OAPF there is an aspirational section on the potential centralisation of freight and waste management. Available technologies for inserting and maintaining the cable cars would, with a little adaptation, quite readily support such multi-functionality.
Amongst all the Good Growth of the Opportunity Areas there is the Silvertown Tunnel, seemingly adding to the urban dissection and desiccation that presently results in a most extreme example of urban severance that is the north Blackwell quarter. Should the tunnels not progress, or even if they do, the site that distributes traffic and that is so convenient as the hub of new and existing cable cars could act as a focus for the local distribution of goods, both into and out of the cat’s cradle.
Carrying people and goods would expand the practicality and fiscal endurance of the system. It would reduce the carbon footprint and expand the local catchment of the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone, of Canada Water, of Canary Wharf, of the Isle of Dogs and of South Poplar. It would make connections with other transport systems from presently isolated locations, providing an overlay of local connections to the present through-systems. In the most part the location and form of the cat’s cradle can be determined in a manner unconstrained by existing infrastructure corridors, a new transport infrastructure placed largely in advance of and therefore in harmony with the desires and detail of the urban plan and its architecture. It would be a transport network that could be expanded in an entirely non-disruptive manner as funds allow – to Thamesmead, to Beckton, to Lea Valley, all links that could benefit from the movement of both people and goods.
– • –
This of course is all still supposition born of a socially distanced new year break, but it’s looking very promising as a way of overcoming some of the connectivity, environmental and funding issues that underpin Good Growth. As I continue to ponder the potential of the system, and as I begin to consider the tenets of safeguarding, my guru Mr David Rhys Jones is investigating how all of this will work effectively and safely. We will report further as our answers emerge.
The planned move of the GLA to The Crystal building has a consequence that I wouldn’t have predicted, that of Sadiq benefiting from Boris.
As with many GLA/TfL/LUL office moves, there seems to be an enthusiasm for placing London’s governance teams as far as reasonably possible from good public transport links in the interest of using the workforce as a fillip to an emerging area of development.
I recall the move to Canary Wharf as the nascent estate was getting back onto its fiscal feet in the late ‘90s; the move to Palestra to bookend The Cut, glamourise Southwark Bridge Road and make better use of Southwark Jubilee Line station; the move to the windswept edges of Stratford to encourage a mixed-use urban wrap to the Westfield edifice; and now to The Crystal building, not only being a chance to bolster awareness of and growth in South Newham, but also to at last give substantial purpose to the overpriced glamour project of Sadiq’s immediate predecessor.
Someone at TfL has doubtless done the analysis but it seems to me that the Emirate’s Air Line cable car will now be the commuting route of choice for a large proportion of GLA staff and their non-virtual visitors, a journey-end reward for travelling in the increasingly overstuffed Jubilee Line. The options are the Docklands Light Railway or a climb over the tracks to the buses from Canning Town, and so the gondola’d numbers could be substantial.
And of course I was thinking of this in coronavirus times when, like so many of us, I was seeking to predict the nature of public transport in a ‘Memories-of-Covid’ future.
Only last year I had spent a jolly day riding the Mi Teleferico through La Paz, watching within that enjoyably chaotic city how elegantly and precisely the choreography of passenger movement was achieved between multi-coloured cabins and multi-layered city districts. I had intended to write a blog on the simplicity and effectiveness of the system in operation and use, and the beneficial impact its arrival had had on the welfare of those who lived in the areas of the city that previously struggled to connect. But in pre-Covid times I demurred, considering then that the cable car had questionable value in cities like London that have so many other more capacious options to pursue and where, unlike La Paz, Bogota and Medellin, the topography is hardly the challenge.
Recently however, both the arrival of Covid in, and the departure of Sadiq from central London have given these observations another lease of life. Is it that the cable car can be the next DLR in an area where the topography, if not precipitous, is not short of water?
Initially thought of as an amusing distraction by us ‘proper railway’ people, it was a 2-car DLR that greatly assisted the opening up of the east of the city in a way few had anticipated. And while the Jubilee Line brought another level of growth where it could, the 3-car DLR continues to offer a valuable service throughout the hinterland. Of course Crossrail is coming too, but each time a system is added, so the stations are placed further apart, largely located for interchange, and only positioned where the development need is already substantially satisfied. And so we have four rail systems circumnavigating the docks and still large tracts of land where people could happily live and work that are beyond the reach and capacity of our public transport.
Parallel thoughts also influence my ‘Memories of Covid’ future:
– These four systems are designed on the principle that people live a long way from where they otherwise want to be, and a predominantly radial London may not continue to be the preferred model.
– Each of these systems is justified by loading as many people as possible into the minimum infrastructure, with social distancing inevitably reducing the viability.
– In place of Crossrail scale proposals a local area network may be the only thing that’s affordable and a popular ambition in any event, linking local residents to local services and local workplaces.
– Proximity to a small number of other people during the journey may be either desired or essential.
– The onward journey is increasingly likely to be by bicycle if not on foot.
– And, as I have previously mulled, will it be that interchange doesn’t have to be immediate to ensure the desire to use the system, because a more leisurely journey time accompanied by a better experience is considered to be of value.
In post-Covid cities where such parallel thoughts may collide, the cable car now shows its strengths.
With a quick look at a map reminiscent of EastEnders credits (RIP Babs), I find that the proposed GLA HQ and its umbilical and potentially catalytic cable car lie in proximity to any number of growth opportunities, all awaiting, or at least needing, improved connectivity. A cat’s cradle of low cost public transport may be just what the area needs to repeat the DLR magic.
It’s a thought which interests me and that I shall develop towards a future blog.
LinkedIn asked if I knew you and produced your structure in the Thames by way of introduction. I was as puzzled as TfL.
Should you have a heatwave, the flow in the Thames is negligible. Most of the water has been syphoned off to allow the inhabitants of the Metropolis to cavort with partners in cool showers. Should you drop a fag packet or corpse in the Thames at high tide, it will reappear a few feet further down 11 hours later. The temperature of the Thames will be only marginally lower than the temperature of the less privileged inhabitants. As far as cooling the Tube is concerned, I would not hold out too much hope.
Should you wish to promote other mad schemes, I hope you would consider me as a participant. I feel more than qualified.
I will of course take David up on his kind offer – as I have had the pleasure to do so often in the past – and I much look forward to testing his theory on cadavers.
However in the meantime I considered it worth re-investigating the causes of the heat in London Underground tube tunnels and making sure that cooling the clay with my contraption could offer long term benefits, regardless of the climatic and climactic events above.
Unsurprisingly I find Sharon Duffy has the detailed requirements of tube cooling at her fingertips, all succinctly captured by IanVisits.
Enlivening covid-quarantine with post-practice archiving leads me to unearth a few TMA projects that to my mind deserved more. Mudlarking is one such.
“The river’s vital role as both an artery for transporting people through the heart of London and as a playground for people to explore the wonders of the city are on show for the world to see. A trip along the Thames reveals 2,000 years of riparian history. From the Roman walls at Tower Hill, and the Victorian wharves and warehouses to the soaring peak of The Shard – providing a stunning vista of London’s past and present. – Boris Johnson, Mayor of London (TfL River Action Plan, 2013)“
Set against a background of renewed enthusiasm for the river, Mudlarking was our submission to one of those seemingly interminable GLA/Transport for London design framework procurement processes. With a request for high-quality design, solid transport and urban experience, strong London-centric ideas and a willingness to commit commercial suicide, the metrics of GLA Framework satisfaction came with a brief of detail and clarity, ensuring that the submission comparisons could be objective, auditable and absolute:
“Please submit an outline illustration of your ideas demonstrating a development benefiting from a Thames-side location.”
We had recently considered the potential for cooling-the-tube at Bank station, the masterplan for which we had been developing since 2003 and elements of which were then under construction – and indeed, still are. We had considered one of those environmentally beneficial ‘service the new construction from the river’ ideas, involving tunnels and shafts that, if they could be worked around development piles and the path of the imminent Thames Tideway at Swan Lane Pier, could later house platform-wrapping pipework that would be naturally cooled by the river’s tidal flows.
The idea never got anywhere at the time, but here was an opportunity to revive the cooling proposal without the scale demanded of spoil extraction, with adjacent developments participating in heating:cooling:cost sharing, and in support of and displaying the benefits of Mudlarking, one of those typically eccentric London activities – instinctive, inquiring, educational, steeped in tradition, dirty and incredibly fun.
As a typology I was reminded of the old Oxo Tower heliport, a far-from-public transport interchange I once had the pleasure of experiencing with my earliest and most encouraging mentor Mr Foster, which comprised a rusty hulk of a barge enclosing a somewhat over-plush interior in which to await the arrival of your Bell JetRanger. The cubes and the barge were long gone, much to the benefit of brasserie dining and Coin Street slumbers, but the nature of the facility still strikes me as one of those once typical London chance discoveries, embellished with once typical London covert opulence.
So we combined these ideas, wrote something Borisly poetic, submitted in eager anticipation ….. and got this back in response.
“A) Very confusing and incoherent proposal. Unclear what proposal shows and what relevance it has to brief. (B) The visual shows some quality and promise but falls short of successfully explaining the proposal. Adequate. (C) The text does not clearly communicate anything and lacks quality.“
Back in the box it all went, to be revived another day when the stick-in-the-mud assessors were replaced with Mudlarking enthusiasts who could see the environmental, economic and social benefits of combining apparently disparate objectives for the greater comfort and joy of us all.
At the risk of stating what is already widely known, the activity of building that was once the creation of a single edifice by the ‘architect builder’ is now the bringing together of component parts by a multi-faceted team. One creative ambition in this context is, as in many things, the reduction of those parts to a minimum and the distillation of the interfaces to a subtle and elegant composition that speaks succinctly, with precision and with clear purpose. Above all this is, or should be, the art of the architect.
If I had more time I’d write a shorter letter.
The environment in which these buildings are composed goes some way to defining the form that the parts and the whole might take. The light and climate of Porto is not that of London, the modelling of simple mass that is so effective on the exposed edge of southern Europe is made bland by our damp grey blue environment and so begets northern Europe’s more textured architectural approach. But, while they can grace buildings, complexity and texture are not of benefit to the design of our infrastructure, particularly when it lies underground. To look further south at the purist modernism of Alvaro Siza is to engage with an architecture that is more appropriate to the need.
Alvaro Siza is acknowledged as one of the best in this reductive art, and a trip around his works in and about his home-town of Porto is a study in considered simplicity. His art is applied to churches, wineries, high end hotels and affordable housing. There are numerous private houses and there are occasional public squares. And you will not be surprised to learn that there is also an underground station.
As a typology the station is, in Porto and the world over, ripe for the refinement of detail, the minimal number of components and materials, the simplicity of form and the clarity of route, and Siza is in his element. If it weren’t for the pace of the people in Sao Bento you may on occasions forget you are in a station, such is the ecclesiastical reverence to space and detail. The strength of light in which Siza is playing penetrates deep down the escalators, the staircase may lead to an altar, the elements of equipment are exhibits in their own right.
And yet it also seems that there is some additional agreement here, an agreement that, if you are to employ a much-admired architect with strongly held beliefs, ‘though shalt not foul my station with your secondary revenue’. For where Eduardo de Moura’s stations at Aliados and Trinidade seek a similar simplicity, his unquestionable skills struggle to rise above the usual plethora of posters and sales points. Meanwhile, at Sao Bento, there are very few such trappings – the signs that are required are precisely arranged, Siza is allowed to scribble on the walls in the manner of Le Corbusier, the walls and fittings are unencumbered by self-promoting tat, and so the station becomes less a source of side income for the railway company and more an exhibition of the thoughts, talents and desires of the architect.
And why not? For railways should run trains, not sell other people’s product. To do that against the competition from the automobile they must make the experience – their infrastructure – as attractive, comfortable, enjoyable, safe and clear as practical. The near-constant bombardment with promotional messages from other parties from which stations usually suffer surely detracts from these primary purposes, adding confusion and detail that is quite opposite to the intent. The result is usually a compromise, a low quality commercial offering, a disrupted wayfinding experience, and a lesser spatial experience with an increased maintenance load.
So let us have more Sao Bento’s, let the station architect provide an infrastructure that pleases the senses and of which we are worthy, and let us have a transport system that we all want to use and so be able to fund it from tickets.
After too many years I land again in New York, intrigued to see the achievements of the intervening mayors who vowed to clean up its act.
There have been the consequences of Rudy Giuliani (in office 1994-2001), with his tough-man stance and his Broken Windows Theory of urban decay – an emotive approach at the time but interestingly applied a couple of years later by Tim O’Toole at London Underground, with some success in countering graffiti. Then came Michael Bloomburg (in office 2002-2013), part-funder of the Walbrookentrance at Bank station, who spent his terms in office much-improving the New York subway, and taking the then bipartisan and now highly popular approach of encouraging public transport through a positive stance on commercial development.
Having arrived with great expectations and equally fulsome luggage, I am obliged to briefly wonder whether, despite all the much-anticipated enhancements, the continued inability to readily transit between Manhattan, JFK and the outside world is all part of the rampant insularity that these days permeates the presidential rhetoric. Surely not, this is New York…
Once in the city of course it’s all worth it. I had forgotten just how low-rise Manhattan is, the memory is of serried ranks of skyscrapers, but other cities have long since overtaken Manhattan in the numerical and physical superiority of these edifices. Manhattan now seems rather homely by comparison. That said, those Johnny-come-lately cities of the middle and far east, with their grasshopper generated building forms and their comic book design references, still can’t hold a candle to the architectural nerve and quality that is Manhattan. And in Manhattan the many and wide intervening spaces enable these muscular and often graceful buildings to be experienced from the ground, not as in London, from some remote viewpoint on the surrounding hills, but by enjoying their majesty from close-to, in the context of the intricacy of the lower buildings and the intimacy of busy street life.
In the absence of the questionable town planning enthusiasm to cluster these buildings, the new hotels, galleries, high-end residential and swanky offices are now marching off into areas previously forbidden after dark, into the public housing estates of Lower East Side, into Harlem and into and onto the railway lands of the West Side. As an approach to regeneration as defined by personal safety, increased commercial opportunity and improved building stock their impact cannot be denied. The greatest achievements of these mayors, their clean-up ambitions and their lax development constraints, is improved security and cleanliness, public transport to be used without hesitation, and the opening up of previously largely abandoned neighbourhoods. And the smell, that acrid waft of days-old garbage so much a feature of a walk around the Manhattan of the late 20th century, is gone too.
But all this comes at a cost, and the cost is vitality.
Of course I visited the Highline, much promoted as a catalyst for urban regeneration and indeed, its popularity cannot be denied, drawing many to walk its length and enjoy the rich and interesting vegetation that grows better than buddleia on old track beds.
But this is not regeneration in the way that we in Europe define it. While the walk is enjoyable and the greenery welcome, it is a walk of entertainment and not one of connectivity. Yes, it connects Rocket’s Hudson Yards with Piano’s Whitney – both of which by the way, exhibit a rather commercial sterility despite the efforts of their participating starchitects – but in between it rarely connects, passing through buildings and over streets without addressing them in any significant manner. This is regeneration in the manner of Central Park – a place of leisure that can be enjoyed by all, and towards which can now face the adjacent properties, much increasing their cost without greatly adding to the urban value of the adjacent city.
On a broader level, this significant increase in property cost, driven in part by the mayoral clean-up and doubtless a few tax breaks, has to an extent devalued Manhattan. Gone is the rich-mix, low-cost, punk-art excitement that permeated Soho, Greenwich village, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. At risk are the pop-up basketball courts on street corner building lots and the locally tended pocket parks of Elizabeth Street. In their place is offered the likes of Heatherwick’s Vessel, amusing yes, but adding to the vibrant immediacy of the city? Debatable. The result is safer, yes. Cleaner, much. More aromatic, certainly. So ticking many boxes. But in the process is lost much of the vitality, the fascination, the spark and the uniqueness for which Manhattan was famous and that I am pleased to have known and enjoyed. I am told this has not gone but moved across the rivers, but it is a shame nevertheless, because the rivers contained and concentrated the excitement and the drift away to the suburbs is unlikely to maintain the same intensity. One day I shall return and investigate.
For now, if there is a lesson for me in this it is that loosening the grip of strictly zoned civic planning, allowing development and transport to expand more freely and cooperatively, can provide local pockets of enhancement that better reflect the qualities of a slowly nurtured city. But in developing the urban realm that supports these, the requirement is for a facilitator of a more tolerant urban character and variety, rather than simply an exercise in beautification, increased leisure and gentrified property values. The need is to support further change and growth, not to cement a singular image of design prowess. The ambition should be to encourage chance engagement, the unexpected and the unpredictable, to provide opportunity to all of us, users, neighbours and owners alike.
A chance article about a recent U-Bahn in Leipzig tempted me to investigate.
In truth I was invited to an urban regeneration event by an acquaintance and took the opportunity to look into this ‘uncube’ piece. For it speaks rather dismissively of a U-Bahn project, not from the point of view of its purpose, which is to make a rail connection across the city (think mini-Crossrail) but from an architectural desire that had not, it seems, been satisfied. This is always a matter of interest to me, for I believe the architectural expression and urban impact of our stations is important, being comparatively cheap to provide, with missed opportunities oftentimes the result of short-sighted value engineering decisions, and equally oftentimes being not difficult to retrofit when the error is recognised.
The engineering decision at Leipzig is to construct box stations; deep, seemingly unpropped excavations that have scarcely any accommodation within them to interrupt the space. Creating boxes in historic and much-loved city centres such as that of Leipzig inevitably means that space has to be found in the urban fabric that removes as little of that fabric as possible, and inevitably therefore the station is rarely at the heart of the urban action. However in Leipzig the centrality of these stations is really rather impressive. There are four underground stations, one within the arched trainshed of the mainline station, one in the central market square, one on the southern edge of the centre, and one further south, at the site of the original terminus station to which the tunnels from the north now connect.
Each station has a different ambience and, while the article considers the architectural styling to be either restrained or falsely emblematic of a particular historic incident, to me they are all simply resolved and really rather good. Clearly there is experimentation here, architectural and artistic in equal measure, some more successful than others only due to maintainability and rampant pigeons but uplifting spaces nevertheless.
The thrust of the article is in the loss of the opportunity to create more Architecture (‘pizzazz’), that the stations are underplayed and not an adequate representation of the €1bn invested. I’m in two minds. First, it is certainly true that the surface structures are less impressive than things below ground. But with station boxes you expect icebergs and the surface structures really don’t need to be grander if form is to approximate to function. However, even small entrances can have flair, and if you are going to dig a big hole in the ground the reinstatement of the site with much the same monotony as before seems a little parsimonious. At the southern two stations in particular, where the entrances don’t rather cleverly employ existing heritage environments, the white box and surface replication approach could have instead offered, and could still offer, a much-improved urban statement and an enhanced public realm. A competition was held for the space around one of these stations, but it focused on celebratory monumentalism (which is easy to argue against) rather than an enhanced environment (which isn’t) and progress seems to have fallen foul of political machinations.
While I was mulling all this over with Andreas Rohrbach, a sculptor who had also joined the event, he mentioned Martin Kippenberger, someone who’s work, I am slightly apologetic to say, I had not known. The reference was Martin’s ‘Metro Net’ project, and by chance one of his pieces lay in a park just on the edge of Leipzig.
The white box simplicity of course struck a chord, as did the project premise that the Metro system is a metaphor for the global interconnectivity of people and cultures. I liked the idea that such a big concept could be captured in such a simplicity of form, and promptly concluded that uncube’s ‘Architecture-for-architecture’s-sake’ was just too close to ‘celebratory monumentalism’, and neither were the correct premise for stations or the urban realm.
We are of course all familiar with Early Contractor Involvement in all its acronymic forms, but is it as good as it could be?
Mostly thanks to my colleague and expert on everything, Daniel Moylan, I have been traveling the autobahns and byways of southern Germany, immersed in the baroque of Balthasar Neumann and his colleagues.
Apart from my sojourn to the stations of Moscow you might think this departure into the absurdly frivolous is not my core interest, it having little apparent place in the minimum maintenance focused design principles that permeate the transport industry. Of course, that’s no reason not to admire the quality of the concepts and craftsmanship with their geometric and structural acrobatics that underlies baroque theatricality. The journey, through Munich, Zwiefalten and Bruchsal, offers surprises and inspires admiration at every turn and is highly recommended.
I came to discuss my trip with Evelien van Veen, and she in turn told of the great English landscapes journey she had recently taken through the north of England.
As we spoke we noted the similarity of these bouts of creativity, of how Balthasar and Capability were near-contemporaries, and how they had both achieved so much in the comparatively short periods of their professional lives. And not just ‘so much’ in terms of quantity, but in the achievement of wholly fundamental changes in our natural and spiritual appreciation and expression. The little time they must have had for each great project, when compared to the time required to crystallise such original thought, must have meant that somehow they had imbued in those that constructed these projects not only their design aspirations, but also an understanding of an essentially different world view. It makes our present attempts at process-driven one-team ECI appear superficial in the extreme.
Of course without the benefits of privilege and residual feudalism, this level of project communication, with its depth of understanding and collective passion, now takes a willingness on all sides to engage and be at one with the concepts and creativity of all participants in the show. However innovative ECI still purports to be, this is still something I have so far struggled to see and would very much wish to experience.