Dreams of the Westway 1: Concrete Gothic

I last did a post on the building of the Westway in 2013. A reader of the blog had sent me some pictures of the construction work probably originally taken for Laing, the company that built the elevated motorway. There were 50 or so photographs. Recently another reader contacted me to say he had acquired a similar collection of pictures, probably from the same source. Rather generously he scanned them all and let me have copies. There are more than 2500 of them. For a local studies librarian this is the equivalent of opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. Well, perhaps not quite. More realistically if you like it’s the equivalent of getting copies of the pictures from the Whitelands May Queen scrapbooks thanks to the generosity of  the archivist at the College.

The sheer number of pictures means it will take a while to identify locations and backgrounds, especially as the pictures extend across the borders into Paddington and Shepherd’s Bush, which are both outside my official area of expertise. There are so many pictures I can’t manage to view them all in one go. There may still be some I’ve barely looked at. You can expect me to come back to this topic from various angles for a long time.

It shoud also be remembered that the pictures are about the work. That is why the photographers took them. Like the street photographs of Ernest Milner, which formed a legal record for a railway company, the Westway pictures are a record of construction. Their value to history is incidental.

So is their aesthetic value. There are pictures of empty lots, overgrown wastelands. Eyesores at the time probably but scenes of 20th century industrial gothic now. Images of the steel and concrete structures that make up the mot0rway are also forbidding towers, dark cathedrals, lonely tunnels, inexplicable tangles of steel, bleak vistas of churned up mud and tiny figures engaged in enigmatic tasks.

You get my drift. “All right if you like concrete I suppose” somebody said. But I do. Concrete was the great building medium of the age. When I was growing up I had an idea of modern London – the South Bank Centre, skyscraper office blocks, soaring elevated roads, all concrete.

85172There are awe inspiring views here such as  where one the concrete supports hold the new roads aloft above the newly created wastelands. In a certain light the curve of the road looks almost beautiful.

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As the supports are built they look enigmatic,their purpose not quite clear.

W576The views of unfinished portions makes the whole structure look fragile, full of empty spaces.

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Beneath the concrete the steel skeleton.

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The growing road spans older industrial forms.

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Concrete monoliths rise out of the ground as if newly discovered rather than built.

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Dark tunnels already have an ancient look about them.

W2843Look at the shadowy figures at the end of the tunnel.

What was the purpose of this lone pile?

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Below the road it almost looks like an archaeological dig rather than a construction project. Perhaps they’re unearthing something.

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Close up the work takes on an almost abstract quality.

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The hidden parts of the road reveal a complex infrastructure.

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Layers of steel beneath the concrete.

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Beneath the road the raw concrete shapes form a dark wood over bare ground as the project moves from this:

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To this:

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Okay, maybe I allowed the gothic thing to get out of hand. I’ve been watching some of that Gothic season on BBC 4 . And I’ve been trying to read a couple of Ann Radcliffe novels (but I keep putting them down and returning to Jeff Noon’s Vurt, which I haven’t read since the 90s – another kind of gothic) . But I did almost get to the end of this post without mentioning J G Ballard.

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Postscript

As I’ve said this collection of images is hard to grasp in its entirety . My colleagues and I will be researching the backgrounds for months, so this is what you might call an impressionistic taster.  I’ve deliberately ignored the social and historical context – the clearing of a vast swathe of housing, the scarring of a huge section of west London – in favour of the aesthetic angle. But this is just the beginning.

Once again many thanks to Mr AT for his kind donation of these pictures. Now that this blog has its own history I see that the contribution of readers who send me pictures or make comments is as much a part of the blog as the posts I write. So thanks also to all of you.

I’ve been busy with the London History Festival this week so apologies if this post looks like it was thrown together at the last minute. Obviously it was. But while writing I got the idea for another post about the underbelly of construction which you may read soon.

 


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