We are falling in love with trains all over the place at the moment. As this piece by Stephen Bayley in sunday’s Observer correctly observed, “What a horrible, inhuman, artless culture air travel has become… Trains have never been more popular and as the allure of air travel turns into ordure, they will likely become more popular still.” The new St Pancras station is the most commonly cited cause for this new exuberance, but I have a hunch that the East London Line extension is going to attain a faintly iconic status within a few years. New and stylish bridges are cropping up amongst the flats and warehouses of Hackney and Shoreditch, and the route will be enjoyably tortuous, especially as it does a U-Turn over Hoxton. A railway at this height above street level is reminiscent of the Chicago ‘L’, offering that same perspective on the urban landscape that is neither birds-eye nor pedestrian-eye.
(I used to be a trainspotter. If you don’t believe me, I can tell you that in 1987 there was only one Class 40 operating in Britain, and I, err, spotted it. Just thought I’d get that out of my system.)
Technology always involves recreating the relationship between freedom and constraint. New freedoms involve new types of constraints. We don’t expect to be able to do anything with technology, but it helps if the technology speaks honestly to us. This honesty is central to modernism: modernists offer transparency, and with it, humanity. Like a maths student, modernist technology shows its workings, so that even if the final answer is wrong, we can sympathise. Postmodern architecture later abandoned this commitment to the facts.
We love trains because they display this honesty, while so much technology elsewhere has become deceitful and mysterious. The East London Line bridges have not been designed to make us buy anything, or to alter the image of East London, or as some pastiche of a previous era. They have been designed to carry trains and withstand the impact of tall lorries. There aren’t many artifacts in our society that are quite that frank.
Airports are places where we are entirely victimised by technology – spied upon, x-rayed, shunted around. The relationship between us and the machines is entirely asymmetrical. The technology we carry around with us, and now depend upon, carries secrets and obeys invisible internal rules. When these digital machines break,…