Architecture

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The Independent Culture
A fortnight ago I turned off the M6 south of Stafford and north of Birmingham because I didn't want to crawl along the crowded and ugly section of motorway that pullulates through the West Midlands. Save very early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, I do not enjoy the banality of motorway driving, having neither an executive company car nor a taste for motorway service stations (although these can be unintentionally funny). Which is why I found myself on the old A5, a slow road, dual-carriageway here and there, artics aggressively overtaking Austin Maestros, that cuts across country avoiding Brum and leads eventually to the M1.

On the map the A5 appears to point through towns I have visited no more than once - Tamworth, Rugeley, Lichfield - but in practice it by-passes them all, and the car purrs up and down hills between sporadic flocks of sheep, roadside caffs and an effluence of edge-of-town schlock.

I may be oversensitive when it comes to the sight (and very existence) of superstores and the whole inane panoply of dolled-up warehouses bursting at the seams with Christmas-rush essentials including Pete the Repeating Parrot (very popular this year, especially, it seems, along the A5), cut- price "designer" fashions, and more festive gewgaws than you can imagine the nation having the stomach or eye for. I have never seen so much of this retail junk strung together alongside a road so persistently this side of the United States.

In the States, this sort of "edge city" development is clearly junk (and has long been celebrated as such by East and West Coast intellectuals). It has no pretensions to being anything else. In the filmic or romantic imagination, its lack of pretension imbues it with hicksville charm: we see it not as it is, but through the subjective lenses of the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo) or Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise). In any case, the US is so huge that a few miles of Dairy Queens and Burger Kings soon gives way to boundless landscapes that take the breath away and replace it with fresh air.

Back on the A5, the charge I would level against our own "edge city" tat is that it is unnecessarily pretentious. In fact we employ a growing number of reputable architects to over-design superstores and leisure developments, which only makes these horrid buildings seem all the more trite.

Superstores and warehouses selling Pete the Repeating Parrot are only meant to last a few years, so why pretend they are the architectural equivalent of churches and museums (even though they are far more important than these in the shopaholic Nineties)?

Sainsbury's, the superstore that grew from those handsome high-street shops with their marbles, mosaics, breasts of New Zealand lamb at 4d a pound and cheery ladies in spotless white turbans who totted up the price of pork luncheon meat and brisket with pencil and paper, is now employing the likes of Terry Farrell (Harlow) and Sir Norman Foster (Cambridge) to design stores that would be better without them. We think we ought to make these monsters pretty, but this is like dressing a night-club bouncer in a DJ. I can't help feeling, though, that if they said no, and we put up basic buildings that we felt nothing for and so raised and demolished as and when necessary, that we would come to terms with the brutal reality of edge-of-town development. We may well decide that this ugliness is not worth the convenience of being able to one-stop shop by boring make of car. We might decide to shop in town, or to direct our architectural talent into housing rather than shopping. Until then, expect the A5 experience, or a special-offer, cut-price version of it, coming to a road near you very soon.

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