Last week the Design Council Cabe Design & Infrastructure debate focused on the latest infrastructure proposals and how these impact local communities.
Hosting the event was the Design Review’s Thomas Bender. Speakers included Heatherwick Studios’ Mat Cash, the Landscape Institute and Farrer Huxley Associates Director Noel Farrer, and Martin Knight of Knight Architects.
To get the ball rolling, Thomas Bender highlighted infrastructure’s role in society as a lasting, pride-inducing coming together of design and engineering. As well as helping society through basic functions and usability, Bender noted that great infrastructure should incorporate beauty, sophistication, wonderful engineering and innovation in order to “touch the hearts” of those that use it. Recent trends have seen functional infrastructure and the energy industry taken for granted or frowned upon as dirty, dangerous and uninspiring. How can we reverse this erosion of civic pride? Vision and beauty, Bender suggested, are what’s needed to bring joy in infrastructure back to these communities. Through innovative use of materials, the regional impact of linking areas of landscape, a shift towards sustainable behavioural change and adaptive re-use, this healthier, more holistic view of infrastructure can be achieved.
Speaking next, Heatherwick Studios’ Mat Cash focussed on the misconception of infrastructure as a substructure, rather than an intimate human network that we see, feel and interact with on a daily basis. Pointing to Heatherwick’s Paddington Footbridge – the singular uncurling mechanism of which often delights onlooking crowds – Cash noted that the spectacle of infrastructure is something to be enjoyed and celebrated as public art or theatre. Moving on to discuss Heatherwick’s new bus for London, Cash highlighted the importance of care and detail in infrastructure, in order to enhance the human experience. The bus interiors were re-examined, the palette softened and calmed, and points of interaction – i.e., stopper buttons and handrails – tweaked to offer maximum ergonomics, stylish durability and ease of use.
Finally, Cash discussed Heatherwick Studios’ innovative Teesside Power Station. Looking back to benchmarks such as Battersea Power Station, Cash noted a clear decline in public pride for large-scale infrastructure projects. Eschewing the standard “scattering” of boxes approach, Heatherwick have proposed to stack or bunch the components of the power station together, forming a “power park”. By incorporating viewing platforms, greenery, venue hire and office space, Heatherwick Studios hope to foster an appetite for community care surrounding infrastructure, and move away from modern conceptions of power stations as dangerous, high-security, opaque complexes.
Noel Farrer was next to speak, as he discussed further discussed the difficulties of engendering value in infrastructure schemes. “Good infrastructure is good landscape” was Noel’s initial message, as he pointed to monumental projects such as the Great Wall of China and Paris’s Saint-Lazare Train Station for their profound national significance, effect on tourism and value as a piece of landscape. The cultural and financial contribution of such projects to their surroundings is vast, Farrer argued, and the mark they leave on the globe enduring. Pointing to Britain’s “lost” era of heroic materialism, Farrer focussed on Battersea Power Station’s iconic position in our physical and cultural landscape, noting that the structure’s beauty has led to its role and and value in society far eclipsing its contribution of actual energy (Battersea was operational for only 27 years).
Looking towards Detroit, Farrer posited an approach of green, intuitive, thoughtful and holistic infrastructure to remedy landscapes of broken industry. Summoning Aristotle, Farrer noted that the meeting of Government and infrastructure deals with the tension between the needs of the state and the rights of the individual. For infrastructural coming together of landscape and beauty can “enrich our senses” while sidestepping nimbyism.
Speaking last was Martin Knight, who chose to discuss the important place of bridges in our society. Bridges exhibit tangible identities, argued Knight – they are real, loved objects, which regularly appear in art and on money. Looking at Brunel’s Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which inspired a Turner painting, Knight noted its beautifully efficient flat and wide arches, painstakingly constructed to avoid a gradient, which still serve today. He moved on to analyse Knight Architects’ Te Matau a Pohe bridge, which crosses Whangarei Harbour in New Zealand. Knight suggested that the bridge, which incorporates a distinctive bascule shaped like a traditional Maori fishhook, acts as a signifier of progress and totem of change for the local community. For those who live with these pieces of infrastructure on a daily basis, concluded Knight, quality is of the upmost importance. We rely on Victorian infrastructure much more than the Victorians ever did. A legacy of robust, beautiful infrastructure is essential.