In today’s Observer, architecture editor Rowan Moore explores Europe’s largest infrastructure project: London’s new Crossrail line. Moore adds that, in addition to the cost, miles, tons of dirt moved, and other construction superlatives, it also “it claims to be the largest archaeological site in Britain, an inadvertent probe through a plague pit, a Roman road, a madhouse cemetery, a Mesolithic ‘tool-making factory.’”

In addition to a stunning slideshow, the piece is full of fascinating details: the construction workers, many of whom are former miners who lost their jobs when the pits closed in Yorkshire and Wales, wear metal tags, “which means they can be identified if incinerated.” Moore adds:

Miners, I am also told, make the best gardeners, as they want to spend as much of their leisure time as possible in the fresh air.

Two of the more astonishing architectural achievements are offsite — outside of London altogether. In parenthesis, Moore refers to the fact that “in Sheffield, an entire station has been prefabricated for erection in London.” Meanwhile, I have put Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, or Tuca,” on my itinerary for my visit: it’s “a large hangar-like building in Ilford, Essex, the majority of whose cost has been paid for by Crossrail. Here, in a facility that ‘doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world’, full-size mock-ups of tunnel building sites are created, where noise and hazards are simulated.” They also have two of the amazing multistory concrete-spraying robots used to line the cavern walls.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the article is the way it reveals the incompatible timelines of major infrastructural investments and urban change. Crossrail’s route seems slightly arbitrary in today’s London, missing the opportunity to connect to Eurostar or Heathrow’s Terminal 5, as well as the areas of the largest expansion around London, and that, Moore suggests, is because it was planned so long ago:

Versions of it were proposed in the 19th century and in the 1940s and the 1970s, before being put forward again in 1989. Parliament deemed it too expensive in 1994 and it was nearly frozen again in 2008, when the looming financial crisis made such huge expenditure look like a bad idea. It is rumoured that it only got through because the then transport minister, Andrew Adonis, also an enthusiast for HS2, slipped it under Gordon Brown’s nose when the prime minister was distracted by thoughts of holding a snap election. According to Tony Travers, an expert in London planning at the London School of Economics, “putting the funding together took years and required valiant efforts by London First and the City of London Corporation.  The government had to be lobbied for nearly two decades.”

Travers adds: “Crossrail is an example of the odd way we plan projects. In brief, either you get this one big project or the money disappears. There is never an alternative use for the public resources. It is very hard to be sure about value for money. Having said that, major railways in London or the south-east are almost always going to give better cost-benefit figures than the same project anywhere else in the UK.” In other words, Crossrail is being built not because it is definitely the best way of spending the money, but because it was so large and so persistently put forward that the government grew tired of saying no.

You should read the article in full for many other fascinating details of near-misses (an 80cm brush with the Northern line), property values, art commissions, and more…

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