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Roads Design Panel to banish “ugly” highways

New highways may have to be approved by a roads design panel, the government has said.

Tory roads minister John Hayes announced the proposal in Westminster yesterday.

He said the panel would “banish ugly design from new road schemes”. In December, the government announced a £15bn road-building programme.

Hayes said the design panel would become “a key forum for architects, engineers, highways authorities and construction businesses, bringing together visionaries and practitioners”.

It will establish a set of design principles, that “will help provide guidance for developers that will be incorporated into the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges – the bible for road engineers,” he said.

Beauty of form

In a long and sometimes florid speech, Hayes made references to the Roman Empire, the philosopher Nietzsche, and the US TV series Mad Men, to support his argument that “beauty of form” can enhance “the function the road.”

“A civilisation is largely defined by what it builds. How we see the Roman empire is shaped by what they left behind for those born later. All successful civilisations have looked beyond mere utility.

“At the heart of much modern architecture, like much modern art, is the Nietzschean conception that we can create our own value system. But this is not, as Edmund Burke noted long ago in an early work on aesthetics, the same as beauty. Burke understood that there is a great deal in common in what people find beautiful. But this is not related to utility; our appreciation of beauty is an effect “previous to any knowledge of use’.

“Our perception of beauty is not rational. It stems from the unconscious; from our deepest feelings and emotions as human beings. ‘Something beautiful you can truly own’, was the tag line of a campaign for the E-Type Jaguar in the TV drama Mad Men, an apt example of what Burke was writing about.

“So today I want to make the case for a new vision for roads and the architectural features on and around them.

“To make the design of the infrastructure as important as the design of other buildings around us.”

Post-war lessons

Hayes said it was important to learn from the lessons of post-war road-building.

“As the road network developed, we seem to have cared less and less about good design,” he said.

“The Boston Manor viaduct is a set of brutalist monoliths that seem to have escaped from the grimmer end of some American metropolis.

“Ring roads, footbridges, underpasses and pedestrianisation have all served to create a destructive sense of alienation from the built environment

“In his 1970s novel Concrete Island JG Ballard recounts the story of a modern day Robinson Crusoe marooned, not on a desert island, but on a motorway intersection on the outskirts of London. Ballard’s narrative is powerful because the brutal, empty concrete spaces that typify our road network look so alien that we are unable to relate to them.

“It wasn’t meant to be this way. In fact, on the very first motorway to be built – the Preston Bypass – good design was central to the engineers’ vision.

“As the philosopher John Gray has written, ‘the forms of common life in which we find our identities are the environments in which we live and have our being: they are our human ecology’.”

Hayes concluded by saying: “Through the ‘Road investment strategy’, we can instill sound new design principles right at the start of infrastructure development – so aesthetics and environmental issues are considered alongside engineering and local planning.

“Good design need be no more expensive than bad design. We accepted this with High Speed 2, Crossrail and the 2012 Olympics.

“We need a new understanding that improving our road network isn’t just about speeding up journeys at any cost. It’s about creating a network that works better for communities and the environment too.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Philip Alexander

    All very good until the government finds out what the extra cost is. Then suddenly the idea will vanish like so many other government promises made by politicians looking for a soundbite.
    What do they take us for?

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