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Style with substance

LettersComment Dave Parker

BlockA long drive through France can be a depressing experience for a British civil engineer. It's not just the sheer scale of the infrastructure projects that seem to be racing ahead along every major transport corridor, nor the ease with which such projects seem to be planned and approved. It's their style.

Bridges are the most obvious irritants. How come French highway structures, even the most routine overbridge, just look so much more stylish and elegant than their UK equivalents? Compare the apologetic, wishy washy duck egg blues and battleship grey colour schemes of the typical British steel highway structures with the exuberant oranges, jaunty yellows and stylish maroons that can be seen spanning the latest French roads. Check out the parapet details:

bog standard verticals as against intricate metal fretwork. Marvel at the confidence in the public's appreciation of their works that moves French engineers to put up notices not only naming each major viaduct but also giving its exact length.

And when did you last see a British bridge with its abutments displaying mosaic scenes of local beauty spots?

I returned from France a few days ago in a mood of profound disenchantment with the apparent lack of vision and imagination displayed by those responsible for the mostly dull and unmemorable highway structures on our highway network. Imagine my delight, therefore, when a phone call to the Highways Agency elicited the response that there had been a change of policy.

Hitherto, said the spokesman, the watchword had been discretion. Efforts had been made to render structures unobtrusive, so that they would blend into their surroundings and not offend local residents. Things, however, will be different in the future.

It seems the Agency now believes that highway structures can make a positive contribution to the landscape - in the right locations, of course.

Thanks apparently to pressure from Downing Street, highway structures are to be included in the drive for better quality publicly funded infrastructure.

This may not, of course, mean extra funding, but theopportunity to create something memorable appears to be there.

Will anyone take it? Do we Brits, as a profession, as a nation, have anything like the confidence, the flair, the élan of the French? Judging by the latest generation of landmark footbridges, the answer is a (qualified) yes. Not only does the profession have the skills and the talents to produce much more attractive bridges, the public would generally applaud their efforts.

In today's dense traffic the highway structures are the driver's landscape But is anyone prepared to pay enough to really improve that landscape, to make the drudgery of motorway driving a more aesthetically satisfying experience? Is anyone prepared to risk the controversy that would erupt if all the original dour M1 overbridges were to be painted a rich forest green? In the end, it all comes down to confidence, and pride, and faith in the benefits of better infrastructure. And there the French still seem to have the edge.

Dave Parker is NCE's technical editor

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