Architecture: Meanwhile, down on ye olde motorway: Michael Wood discovers more fake history on the M25

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The Independent Culture
Neither the motorway nor the motor car is old, and the motorway service station is just a toddler. When they appeared in the Sixties, the obvious style for these pit stops on the road to a white-hot technology was stripped-down concrete modernism.

In deference to Britain's love affair with fake history and joke oak design, the latest service station - at Clacket Lane, between junctions 5 and 6 on the M25 - is designed in ye timbered style, as if to serve only those arriving by half-timbered Morris Minor Traveller.

As Clacket Lane is likely to be the first service-station stop for motorists coming from France it must be seen as a gateway to Britain and symbol of all we hold dear. And certainly, there can be no doubt that Clacket Lane is an improvement in terms of the services that it provides.

Its predecessors - gloomy concrete bunkers, home of the face-lifted transport cafe and fancy-goods kiosk - have a well-earned reputation for mind-numbing dowdiness. After a high-speed mental yawn along the motorway, what could be less appropriate than piped Muzak, livid colour schemes, bright fluorescent light and the hi-tech drone of the amusement arcade, jammed with driving games and apparently calculated to drive you out the moment you cruise in.

As the Cockney comedian Jack Dee quipped, it makes more sense to stay on the motorway, forfeit your caffeine intake and appease your addiction to video games by chucking 50p pieces out of the window every couple of miles.

Many of these buildings were products of the Sixties, badly designed and poorly constructed; and they now apparently require endless cosmetic refits to meet even the most basic standards expected by Mondeo man.

Clacket Lane Service Area, all 40 acres of it, at least promises something new. It is located on the Kent / Surrey border, and serves one of the busiest sections of motorway in Europe, used daily by 120,000 drivers.

Roadchef, the group that won the contract to develop and operate Clacket Lane, says it had to be mindful of the sensitive nature of the location, near an area of outstanding natural beauty and a site of special scientific interest. It chose a 'vernacular', or superstore, style, which is meant to fit in with local architecture - just as Tesco and Sainsbury's stores do. So the main building resembles a huge converted barn, an unfortu-nate visual metaphor for a cafe that will serve large numbers of people. Exposed wooden eaves, plain clay tiles, low pitched roofs and handmade bricks confirm the farmyard feel.

No expense has been spared on the rustic detailing, with clay finials and even a mock dovecote atop the entrance portico. It is a minutely planned exercise in facadism, which hides a modern mall stocked with shops and services.

On the eastbound carriageway, the service station's focal point is the ubiquitous 'atrium'; this one houses two artificial trees. A high, domed ceiling and a slightly underwhelming water sculpture are the main features of the westbound service area.

Both sides boast slick burger bars, and the main cafes are serve-yourself units offering 'food from around the world'.

The designers have tried to let daylight into the buildings wherever possible and, to be fair, the overall atmosphere is airy. And the all-important lavatories are well thought out.

Clacket Lane succeeds in its service responsibilities, but fails aesthetically. As the demand for consumer services, from out-of-town hypermarkets to DIY superstores, rises inexorably, and pressure builds on greenfield sites, architects are being asked to design buildings that make less and less sense.

The challenge they face is to find a modern design idiom for buildings like service stations, but few have risen to it, preferring to rely on make-believe rustic styles as a way of slipping developments through the planning process. The future seems to be applique pitched roofs, timber framing and weather vanes. Moss Construction feels that it has addressed the sensitive nature of the site and the delicate feelings of local residents, yet its design solution at Clacket Lane is soft-soap.

It is sad that Clacket Lane offers not even one defining feature, in its design and execution, that alludes to the spirit of travel or car culture, which is, after all, its raison d'etre. Today, 94 per cent of all journeys are undertaken by car, but where are the buildings to celebrate or even acknowledge our obsession with the automobile?

The automotive world is redolent with the imagery of speed and aerodynamics, and Britain's own proud history of car design and manufacture provides a rich vein of ideas. This new motorway service station offered a perfect opportunity to use some of these strong visual cues, but as is so often the case they were passed over in favour of bespoke rural camouflage.

The Channel tunnel is due to open in early 1994. For many foreign tourists travelling by car, the services at Clacket Lane on the M25 may well provide a poignant first taste of British style (and food). One cannot help wondering how their initial impressions will differ from those of their fellow Eurotunnel passengers who journey by train to the new international terminal in Waterloo, where Nicholas Grimshaw's stunning glass structure snakes out along the platforms in readiness to meet them.

In stark contrast to the rustic pastiche of Clacket Lane, this strikingly modern design is resonant with the past glories and future ambitions of rail travel. It is also a reminder of the special relationship between transport and architecture that we seem prepared to ignore when we get behind the wheel.

(Photograph omitted)