online: 5 march 2004

4 february 2004 the design of the future

19:38 London. St Pancras Station redevelopment / after meeting John Page* my lifelong friend and early mentor.

Two old men who are not old and an old station that is becoming one of the newest.

I'm sitting now (with a free cup of hot water and my camomile tea bag) among the people waiting to board trains to the North of England (on one of which John has just departed)...

A punkish couple, one with pink hair, are embracing before one leaves, one stays... and others rise simultaneously before embarking, leaving... are we in church?

The diesels rev up to mighty vibrations and deep tones of old-fashioned concentration of power and pollution - soon to be replaced by integrated electrified networks in place of disconnected locomotives, coaches and signals... I remember when such integration was a dream but now it's becoming normal.

This place is in process of conversion to being King's Cross Interchange - a new hub through which one will be able to transfer (I hope smoothly) between a 2 hour Eurotunnel train journey to or from Paris or Brussels and to or from surface and underground trains in London and fast lines to inhabited coasts and downs and fields and other green zones beyond the city... **

I pause to drink the tea, now cool enough to swallow, before writing whatever comes to mind in memories and moment.

What did we talk about, 55 years after our realising we'd chosen wrong professions. John left nuclear engineering [see his correction, below] and I left aircraft design - both of us refusing to engineer weapons or other inhumanities and choosing instead to 'design for people'***. What we did instead is difficult to describe in terms of what exists:

...the challenge is how to build long range democratically supported vision of the future... (J K Page writing on the protection of the countryside)
We forget how odd and indirect a way of communicating are abstract words, So far from life itself, far from the things referred to. (jcj writing of someone's way of giving directions not so much by words as by arm movements)
(both quotations selected by chance from recent writings)

We talked of the lack of fit between ourselves and our colleagues - blinded by their commitment to narrower paid roles than either of us could tolerate... And thus we became labelled as organisational trouble makers... Yet we managed in our different ways to find means to combine or connect what others were obliged, by economic pressure, to separate... 'people and the natural environment', 'people and manufactured objects'. Environmental design and industrial design - but expanded in time and space and centered not on professions but on people. And eventually we were listened to - at least by some.

I pause again, in this noisy station of stations, before leaving.

Young people talk, and laugh, and gesticulate, as if none of this is of consequence while a middle aged man reads Private Eye, a young woman next to me swallows a pill, and suddenly they all get up to board the train to Nottingham - a place I've never been to... Two men embrace tenderly before separating, 'tickets please' calls a voice from the past, and an electric sign reads 'the 20.55 is now boarding'...

My arthritic toe has stopped hurting, John Page is now an hour away, half-way to Sheffield I suppose, but our lives, and those of everyone, will never lose significance. The great arch above, of 19th century engineering, and the station hotel in its fairy tale gothic, remain, as we and our works remain, to become elements of unknown future...

An old man, barely able to walk, nevertheless moves adroitly past - supported by a walking stick and a lightweight folding chair he uses as walking frame - and on his back is a back pack - while a young Afrobrit woman sweeps up the litter of the people just departed... yes all is litter, all is significant, and none of us can see very far - and what dies or continues or transforms is surely beyond knowing - for the languages change and so do our acts and our perceptions.

Passengers arrive, others wait, the train crew walk past towing wheeled suitcases, and a heavily loaded man looks about in apparent uncertainty The next train to Sheffield is boarding and again the seats around me are vacant. I get up to go home to put this online and as I leave the station it is quiet and almost empty.

* J K Page, formerly Professor of Building Science at the University of Sheffield, internationally respected for his work on solar radiation and climate change in the designing of buildings and in regional planning. It was his initiative that led me to work in the Festival of Britain and to learn sculpture - and his example sustained me greatly when what we were doing was unrecognised.

**Facts about the CTRL (Channel Tunnel rail link) project:
Largest single contract awarded. 311 billion pounds [surely million?] for this station alone [the channel tunnel itself cost about 10 billion].
Largest current construction site in Europe.
When completed, CTRL alone will provide 2,700 new jobs

[I don't like this emphasis on external economic values (of cost, size and jobs) but they do reveal the physical scale of what is happening at St Pancras and King's Cross. What is happening in all our minds is of course far more and far less in that the scale and content of everyone's thought is minute and enormous and perhaps ever unknowable... ]

***Designing for people - the title of a book by Henry Dreyfuss that greatly influenced my move from engineering to industrial design. John Page spoke of a book about modern architecture that greatly influenced his change to building science and to the design of the future.

When I showed John a draft of this diary entry he wrote to me as follows:
The book I referred to was by J.M. Richards An Introduction to Modern Architecture [Penguin Books, 1940]. In it, was a description of the MARS group. The Modern Architecture Research Society. The Secretary was Mark Hartland Thomas. I wrote to Mark Harland Thomas and said I wanted to go in the direction of MARS. He said come and work on the Festival [of Britain, 1951] with me at the Council of Industrial Design and learn about the issues for yourself. That I did. I told you to do the same. You listened. The Design of the Future was and still is the human challenge. The future is a global concept. It is much more than what I do for my own future and involves everyone living.
I was never in the nuclear field. Professor Fox Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge wanted me to go to [the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at] Dounray but I had perceived the true nature of the global nuclear crisis when I read The Times of India by the swimming pool in Secunderbad the day after the first Atomic bomb was dropped. The problem was few read the dangers soon enough. That has given us the world we now live in. How do we design ourselves out of this situation? How do we learn to become ecologically viable human societies?

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