img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Back to the futurism

A big infrastructure anniversary sets Will Wiles wondering whether the adapt and refit boom might revive practical but unfashionable interventions

Parasitic plug in: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Oase No. 7 at Documenta 5 in 1972.
Parasitic plug in: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Oase No. 7 at Documenta 5 in 1972. Credit: Photographer unknown, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (CC BY-SA)

London’s Waterloo Station is 175 this year. Named for a British military success, this most martial of London’s terminii is more of a monument to the mixed record of British infrastructural planning. The station was not initially intended to be a terminus at all – for decades the line was to cross the river into central London. The bombastic Edwardian building built by JW Jacomb-Wood and AW Szlumper, with its ‘Victory Arch’ designed by JR Scott after World War One, is the result of the defeat of this dream. An unintended terminus has been joined by an aborted terminus: Nicholas Grimshaw’s marvellous Eurostar station, a high-tech monument at last back in use after being abandoned for St Pancras. 

I was thinking about this chequered history recently while passing Waterloo on a different railway, the one from Charing Cross that trundles across Waterloo’s front porch, undercutting the grandeur of the Victory Arch. These railways don’t intersect, but they used to, and the rail bridge that once connected them now carries another high-tech relic: the 1990s tubular metal walkway that links to Waterloo East station. Well used but not well loved, this curious jetway is now worse for wear. But it still has some futurist dash, not least in its confident defiance of context, a vacuum cleaner attachment slotted into a wedding cake. 

Or perhaps it’s more like a piece of life-saving equipment intubating a wheezing monster. Nowadays this sort of intervention is expected to be more polite, but there was a time when it looked like the future. On 31 December 1989, The Observer newspaper published a special edition of its colour supplement looking forward to London in 2010. In the centrepiece of the supplement, architects offer two competing possibilities for the city. Stephen Gardiner and Joan Scotson’s vision is humane, green and small-c conservative, taking advantage of the falling population to remove the ‘chaos and ugliness’ of main roads and modern housing estates and expand greenery into every corner. It’s a little dull, especially when contrasted with what Nigel Coates and Brian Hatton offer up. This is a cyberpunk London with Dan Dare touches such as weather blimps, monorails and crystal data towers. But most interesting is their vision of architecture as offering ‘software’ rather than the hardware of comprehensive redevelopment and heavy engineering: where buildings are constantly altered, upgraded and refitted rather than torn down and replaced. 

This rather sharply combines the late 1980s heyday of high-tech with the drive towards preservation, aesthetic upgrades and facadism inspired by the future King. Coates’ and Hatton’s main image shows the city riddled through with cybernetic enhancements, bolt-ons and plug-ins, while ‘bad’ buildings get approved facades. Rather than smoothed into seamless contextualism, London’s ‘general confusion’ is celebrated and intensified. Old buildings look old, thanks to overt modern servicing. 

As I say, parasitic high-tech enhancement is now rather out of favour. Services are supposed to be out of sight and out of mind. Pods and tubes are quaint. We want our cyborgs to be less like the functional, ad hoc Borg of Star Trek and more like the stealthy Cylons in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. But at the same time, architects are under increasing pressure to retain and refit buildings rather than demolish and rebuild; change-of-use and a changing climate are increasing the need for adaptation of existing stock; and money is tight. The rough practicality of the cybernetic plug-in – with Coates’ and Hatton’s concern for the aesthetic – might be due a revival.

Will Wiles’ latest book, The Last Blade Priest, has won the Red Tentacle for best novel at the 2023 Kitschies