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Icon 169 – Machines & Modernity

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Icon 169 – Machines & Modernity: how petrol fuelled a new architecture in the 1950s and 60s, Farshid Moussavi tells us about curating the architecture section at the Royal Academy summer exhibition and Faye Toogood makes her comeback.

Icon 169: There is a romance around train travel that the car can never hope to match. And yet, this enthusiasm for rail is propelled by nostalgia more than unbounded adoration for our current status quo. The luxurious reissue of the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual and the excellent British Rail Designed 1948–97 by David Lawrence, both published last year, provide all the evidence you need. But no matter how much we eulogise the modernism developed under the auspices of nationalised industry – everything from graphics to high-speed trains – it was, almost inevitably, the ultimate symbol of rapacious individualism that changed everything.

As rail embarked on a steady decline, the car agitated a high-speed architectural revolution. Whole towns sprang up, their existence predicated in large part on the convenience of the car – Milton Keynes, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, being the most obvious example. And while the road isn’t going anywhere, the seeds of the car’s revolution is currently being sown in the Palo Alto desert by companies such as Waymo and Google. It’s interesting to speculate what new types of architecture the arrival of the driverless car on the mass market might bring. And, crucially, what existing structures will be levelled to clear the path.

A reckoning is already underway. Frank Blampied’s wonderful Welbeck car park equals the sci-fi brutalism of the celebrated Preston bus station, but a failed bid for listing and its subsequent sale to a hotel chain has cast serious doubt on the building’s future. Despite harboring one undisputed icon of 1960s rail, the New Street Signal Box, Birmingham – under the steerage of city engineer and surveyor Herbert Manzoni – bet its future on a mess of ring roads, the infamous concrete collar that the city is now endeavouring to shatter. And so we should examine the successes and failures of the petrol era carefully and with courage. They are markers for a particular place and time when car was the newly crowned king.

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