Motorways are exciting, really they are. Apparently thrown down in unremitting vectors to get us from one conurbation of life to another shopping experience and on to granny’s house, motorways are fascinating corridors of life concentrated, concealed and dislocated. Our M1 holiday will discover and uncover some of this phenomenon.
From 1959, when the first meaningful portion of motorway M1 opened, the new roads became playgrounds for the fast and rich rubbing shoulders with the newly affluent and motor-borne middle and working classes. This very real expression of the democracy envisioned by post world war governments created an environment of exciting potential. In almost five decades of high-speed roads, Britain has become wedded to the private motor vehicle, and consequently the motorway is a space, a territory, of continental proportions in which we spend much of our time and perform various roles: driver, passenger, holidaymaker, adventurer, consumer, lover.
Motorways feature innovative engineering undertaking on a sublime scale. They reveal a panorama of landscape not possible from the railway train because in the car we are contemplating the ever-receding horizon as well as the views to left and right. Motorway signs are a perfect example of British modernism in graphic design. Motorways haven the subject of songs, texts and films.
We still drive on our stomachs. Motorway service areas are little towns by the roadside. Located at uniformly spaced positions according to a maximum limit of travel which motorists would be prepared to undertake, such places were to provide the everyday conveniences of life. With a history only as old as the motorway, their names recall ancient hamlets and landmarks which were often the only settlements preceding their development.
The service areas were developed by commercial companies under the supervision of a severe and controlling Ministry of Transport. Consequently these facilities, which have now become objects of fascination and criticism, have come to form a particular expression of what architects and interior designers considered to be ‘modern’ in terms of planning, form and material. The aspirations of the architects were filterd through the catering companies’ aspirations, and the very peculiar strictures of the Ministry. The emerging hybrid spaces are iconic, dynamic, confusing, and like no other building. How do the accepted notions of place, space and anchoring in history apply to these highly contrived environments? Does a new type of space emerge? We will discuss these questions on our trip. The associations we make with these buildings refer not to the architecture, but to our experience of the interiors. They are not memorable in their sense of place in the way that one might consider the great nineteenth century train sheds to be, or indeed London, Moscow or Washington’s subway stations, or the more expressive and adventurous airport buildings. Instead, we think of the food quality, the crowds, the smells, and the noise. We will also see that service areas are great places to observe life and humanity.
With the forthcoming Tour of the M1 tour, and in the company of some wonderful individuals we are inviting to join us along the way, we aim to discover and experience some of the many curious and intriguing aspects of life on the motorway and at the service area.
David Lawrence is a design historian, and author of Always a welcome: the glove compartment history of the motorway service area. He led The School of Life Tour of the M1 on 24 October 2008. Find out more about the trip here.