Road to redemption: How the architectural influence of the motor car transformed England

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Within walking distance of some of west London's finest stretches of parkland is one of its most dismal sections of highway. On a cold, grey day in November, the vicinity of the M4 flyover at Brentford, not far from the mellow, tree-lined avenues of Gunnersbury and Osterley, is a spectacle of shuddering ugliness.

The buildings that flank the oppressive concrete flyover snaking along above them seem bowed and crestfallen. Only the Audi showroom, with its artful Tower of Pisa tilt, looks like it was designed with an eye for aesthetics, though even this was planned with visibility to drivers on the elevated roadway in mind. For the pedestrian, the scene only instils a feeling of howling desolation. This is a 'carscape' at its bleakest and most uncompromising.

Yet the Brentford flyover is 50 years old now, and even if it still looks like an alien invader after all this time, it is indisputably part of the country's motoring heritage. Now Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England, published this month by Yale University Press, is the first major book on the subject – and it argues that this is not entirely a tale of remorseless destruction and unsightliness.

The authors of Carscapes, Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis, both architectural historians with English Heritage, say their work is "an attempt to stimulate interest in – and awareness of – aspects of our historical surroundings that are often disregarded".

And it's certainly true that the English have been slow to embrace the subject. In his 1934 book, English Journey, JB Priestley travelled along the Great West Road, the arterial highway to the west of the Brentford flyover which became a kind of triumphal way of the young motoring industry from the 1930s, lined with the striking façades of new car factories. To Priestley, the infant road "looked very odd. Being new, it did not look English. We might have suddenly rolled into California."f That slightly grudging attitude, the sense that the car and its associated features really belong elsewhere, has been a long time dying.

For Minnis, the initial reluctance to embrace car culture, in the first half of the last century at least, was easy to understand. "In the States, people's lives were bound up with the car so much earlier – they tended to own cars 15 to 20 years before they did so here. So quite quickly there was this appreciation of what they called 'roadside vernacular'."

America's Hopperesque gas stations, its neon-lit burger bars and motels, were quickly embraced by art, literature and film. Route 66 has National Scenic Byway status, and you can download guides to the US's historic motels from the web. "Whereas," continues Minnis, "the distinguished British motoring journalist Mike Worthington-Williams [also a member of the Society of Automotive Historians] has been trying to stir up interest in motoring buildings here for years, but he has been rather a voice in the wilderness." But our national antipathy or indifference may be changing.

In 1998, a report commissioned by English Heritage highlighted the paucity of information on buildings relating to our car heritage, much of which was unprotected by listed-building legislation and thus vulnerable to alteration or loss in an industry with a natural impetus towards change and novelty. And this summer, the organisation took the bold step of bestowing listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies – one on the A6 near Leicester and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham. Minnis says that, despite some concerns about how the news would be received, they were pleasantly surprised by a favourable public reaction – which even included a slot on The One Show. "There does seem to be a growing recognition now that these things are actually quite interesting," says Minnis.

The book features some intriguing surviving examples of early car-related structures – backstreet repair garages, for instance, and what may be the earliest still-in-use filling station, at Turnastone, Herefordshire which, with its hedge-lined pumps, could be straight out of the pages of a Miss Marple book. But most of these buildings were so architecturally unremarkable that, by the early 1920s, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) was excoriating the proliferation of what it called "wayside eyesores". Although this sometimes led to the employment of big-name architects such as Reginald Blomfield and CFA Voysey to confer an air of respectability, in truth, tame neo-Georgian and a desire not to offend was the usual outcome. The unapologetically decorative, 1911-built – and since listedf – Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road, its corner towers turreted with mock tyres, was a standout exception.

But inventiveness in car architecture did not truly arrive until around the late-1920s and 1930s. Cars as symbols of modernity were the natural bedfellows of the new modern style. Of the factories of the already mentioned Great West Road in Brentford, the streamlined art deco frontage of Firestone Tyres, designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners – also responsible for the famous Hoover building in Perivale – was a classic example. Sadly, in 1980, it was all but demolished (the front gates remain). Similarly, the Coronet filling station (apparently 1950s-England's longest) in the heart of Sheffield's steel-making district, invested the prosaic matter of petrol with all the glamour of Hollywood.

Even car parks adopted the horizontal modern style. Although the brick façade of England's first multi-storey car park, built in 1903 in Wardour Street, London, was so innocuous it looks entirely at home in its modern-day guise as an O'Neill's pub, the Lex a few streets away in the heart of Soho, cut more of an art deco dash in 1928, with its cream-coloured faience tiles and copper dome shining like a beacon. Such buildings had something of the romance of picture palaces of the era, and the Dex in Newcastle was even marketed as the Paramount Garage.

Fast-forward to the unhappy era of 1945 to the 1970s, which inflicted long-lasting visual and social damage. Hitler's bombs might have given planners the green light to sort out the "unplanned muddle" of British cities, as lamented by Sir Herbert Alker Tripp in his study of traffic issues in the aftermath of the Blitz, but the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 even made it compulsory for principal towns which had escaped bombing to draw up new plans. The unquestioned assumption was that the car, central to economic and social wellbeing, was to be given priority.

Inner ring roads carved up Coventry and Birmingham, and even historic Canterbury, Worcester and Carlisle were not spared. Leicester lost its medieval street pattern under a swathe of concrete. The road which sliced through Nottingham's medieval centre was blithely named Maid Marian Way. All these schemes were a matter of civic pride at the time – Leeds, for instance, even announced itself as 'the motorway city of the Seventies'.

"I think most recognise now that this period was a disaster for many towns," says Minnis. "The way ring roads divided communities and city centres has created real economic problems. It's not only nasty when you have to walk from somewhere outside the ring road through underpasses covered in graffiti, but cities are now struggling to contain themselves within these tight areas."

He says a current trend is the downgrading of ring roads. In Sheffield, the fences and underpasses have gone and pedestrian crossings have been reinstated. Coventry, with its elevated ring road, is investigating how to bring people back into the centre from the outskirts, and efforts have been made to restore the old street patterns of Birmingham's Bull Ring.

More debatable is the heritage value of the post-war multi-storey car park, typically constructed out of concrete. For some, these structures cast a shadow over their surrounds – and those reaching listable vintage have proved a hard act for conservationists to sell to the public. But the demolition of one of the most uncompromisingly brutalist – Trinity Square, Gateshead, designed, along with the equally startling and also now no more, Tricorn in Portsmouth, by Owen Luder in partnership with Rodney Gordon – divided opinion, albeit among film buffs rather than architectural historians, as the latter venue acquired a following after its role in the 1971 film Get Carter.

For Minnis, hand-wringing angst about the impact of the car is pointless. As he says, the number of cars on the roads has shot up from two million in 1939 to around 30 million today. "However much you grumble about its impact on town or country, we cannot escape the fact that we can't live without it. In fact, many places would become dysfunctional without [cars] because we have structured so many aspects of our life around them."

In any case, more recent changes and additions to England's carscape have been less bludgeoning. Sheffield's Charles Street Car Park of 2008 has a façade of fragmented aluminium panels which glows green under night lights. Motorway service areas are landscaped with lakes and ponds to provide respite from monotony. The cost of rescue archaeology, along with a more informed conservation movement, acts as a curb on undesirable road schemes.

And perhaps we have been wrong to continually paint the car as the enemy of heritage, anyway. Minnis believes there is a counter-argument. "Yes, a lot of good buildings were lost as a result of the car, but equally it opened up the eyes of a lot of people. The idea of going out to look at historic houses by train was previously restricted to those who could afford it. Cars provoked this extraordinary boom in guide books on how to explore the country, and motoring journals right into the 1960s devoted a substantial amount of space to articles on touring, old cottages and how to spot different styles of architecture."

Now, though, it's the car's own heritage that seems worth valuing. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Morrison and Minnis in their book, "now it is the turn of the car."

'Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England' is published by Yale University Press

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