Hugh Pearman: Locking out the function

A visit to a canal gets Hugh Pearman worried that some modern structures are just made to attract visitors and don’t perform their true function very well

Whatever happened to the functionalist tradition? The one that said an object, building, or whatever, should quietly get on with its job when needed, and quietly fade into the background when not?

You may have thought functionalism was alive and well, given that modernism won the 1980s battle of the styles, with Classicists and Postmodernists relegated to the sidelines. But unfortunately not. In place of PoMo, we got Modernist Expressionism. Otherwise known as Funny Shapes.

I blame computer programs, which have now given us everything from Frank Gehry buildings to the Ford Ka. Funny-shaped objects, as Ron Arad delights in demonstrating, can even be made direct from the keyboard. Norman Foster’s samurai-helmet City Hall for Ken Livingstone would have been impossible without the latest computer technology. But I’m not here to talk about cars and buildings. I’m here to talk about canal engineering. Here’s why.

In the 1950s, the great architectural photographer Eric de Maré travelled England’s canals, recording what he saw: masonry and cast-iron bridges and aqueducts, balance beams and rack-and-pinion sluice mechanisms, warehouses, bollards, brick ramps and dripping, slimy lock chambers. The whole canalscape, then in the process of being rediscovered by the first generation of radical postwar conservationists, added up to a remarkably homogenous statement of honesty in design. De Maré’s journal, the Architectural Review, made much of it. The old canals, it was thought, held clues to the unselfconscious design of new towns and estates, an alternative to 1950s whimsy.

De Maré, who died only recently, was right. The Georgian and Victorian engineers had left an extraordinary legacy of structures, big and small, that were built the way they were because they had a job to do. They had to be reliable, efficient, low cost and low maintenance. Styling didn’t come into it, though those engineers clearly had an innate sense of proportion and grace. Where styling was added on – for instance, if a landowner needed a higher specification of bridge design – they could not be improved functionally, so just had a piecrust of ornamentation applied. This was never very successful.

Why am I raising this ancient issue? Because I have been to see the Falkirk Wheel, a huge piece of new canal engineering. De Maré and his cohorts could have had no idea that their voyage of discovery so long ago would not only save the canals that were then closing down, but would by the turn of the century have triggered a new canal mania. Now, not only is every canal being restored, but new ones are being built. And here comes the problem. Styling.

The Falkirk Wheel is styled. It is a funny shape. It has a visitor centre attached, which is a funny shape too. This tells you it’s a Millennium project. It is a rotary lift that transports boats in tanks between two restored Scottish lowland canals: the Forth and Clyde Canal, and the smaller Union Canal that branches off to run to Edinburgh. At the point of intersection, there is a big level difference, once taken up with a long flight of locks. The Wheel is a dramatic and quicker way to join the two canals, and looked for a while as if it would revive the great tradition of waterways engineering.

It does this up to a point, and then it blows it. Yes, it raises or lowers boats 25m between the two waterways. That’s dramatic enough. Sadly the architect, RMJM, has tried to makes it look whizzier by bolting on big, curved metal fins and tried to make the aqueduct leading up to it look more fab by passing it through a series of non-structural hoops. The effect, unfortunately, makes it look like the world’s biggest Magimix. In a Magimix, the blades are the whole point. Here they are mere decoration.

It is all rather overblown and silly. Very few people in real boats will travel to use the Falkirk Wheel, since few vessels exist on these isolated canals, but the hope is that millions of motorists will drive there to buy a ticket, gawp and go for a ride. So you have a huge piece of tiddled-up engineering ostensibly designed for one purpose, but, in fact, built for another: to be a visitor attraction, an end in itself.

British Waterways needs some good design advice. It is now planning a new canal to link Bedford with Milton Keynes. Someone must tell it not to overcook it. Otherwise, a great legacy is paradoxically going to start getting ruined by too much attention. It is perhaps good that de Maré died before he could see this.

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