Charles Holland and Elly Ward consider life in the fast lane
'She said her life was like a motorway:
Dull, grey, and long'
— Saint Etienne, Like a Motorway
Period photographs of early motorways in the UK have a strange, haunting quality about them. For a start they are often almost empty, a solitary Ford Anglia bowling along a pristine stretch of concrete, or acres of seats in a restaurant spanning the M1, diners dressed up as if for a special occasion. Like the New Towns, motorways are the product of a brief love affair with modernity that has curdled over time. It seems almost impossible to equate the sense of freedom and mobility of their 1950s infancy with the current reality of traffic jams and contraflow systems.
There are 56 motorways in the UK, the first completed one being an eight and a quarter-mile long section of the Preston By-Pass, opened in 1958. The Motorway Archive is a good place to start if you want motorway facts. It details the straightest, steepest, widest and skinniest sections. It tells us about the first motorway service station – Watford Gap on the M1 – which is an important subject in its own right. There are motorways that have been downgraded, A-roads that have been promoted and many sections, junctions and spurs that have gone missing or never been completed. As a result, the numbering system is unfathomable.
The pop artist Julian Opie has captured the particular ennui and repetitive blankness of motorways in a series of paintings called Imagine You Are Driving. The single point perspective of the road ahead, enlivened by a subtle curve as the white lines curl off to the horizon, offers a perfect visual metaphor for the disengaged but achingly familiar experience of motorway driving, a sequence of actions we undertake almost without thinking. And yet, motorways offer an extraordinary spatial experience. Not just the speed with which we cut across the land, but the spatial disorientations of lane swapping and complex clover-leaf junctions.
She said her life was like a motorway: Dull, grey, and long — Saint Etienne, Like a Motorway
The clover-leaf takes you off one road and, through a series of fluid, almost endless curves, onto another, hopefully heading in the right direction. Driving here has become an abstract experience, removed from any intuitive understanding of how far we have traveled or where we have gone. The spaces inside these junctions are just as remarkable. They are islands where the land left over between the spaghetti strands of road are neither countryside nor town, scraggy grass rather than concrete islands. Sometimes, a house or barn might have been left stranded there, its scale dwarfed by the stilts of an overpass.
For objects with such enormous physical and environmental impact, there is remarkably little discussion about the design of motorways. We may protest against them to start with but, once built, there seems little left to say. Designed by anonymous civil engineers in large construction companies, their aesthetic qualities are assumed to be purely the result of pragmatic decision-making. Sometimes, in sensitive areas, there might be a nod to heritage in the form of patterned brickwork or a concrete finial, but motorway design usually floats in a value-free, technocratic space, propelled along by its own internal logic. This, in a world obsessed by visual signifiers and brand imagery, is a perverse part of their appeal. They have retained a brutish modernity and indifference to aesthetic niceties that is bracing.
Like suburbia and sprawl, an appreciation of the virtues of motorways is rare though. The flipside of modernism’s future shock is anonymity, repetition and banality. Saint Etienne’s 1994 track Like A Motorway with its motorik beats and kitchen-sink realist lyrics is a very English pop song, an Anglicisation of Kraftwerk’s more utopian Autobahn. The song is double-edged, because the music celebrates the hypnotic repetitiveness of the motorway experience as much as the words seem to denigrate it. Listening to it, with the chorus arriving like an unusual landmark or a bag of sweets tossed into the back seat, is like being on a motorway, but in a good way.
We take for granted the liberating qualities of motorways, only noticing how fast and fluid they are when we are abruptly cut short by a queue or a closed lane. The rest of the time we glide by, cutting through vast swathes of time and space almost without thinking. Like the anonymous driver in Opie’s paintings or the protagonist in Like a Motorway, we glide by on autopilot, counting the beats, nodding to the rhythm, suspended between where we are going and where we have been.
Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture