Driven to Distraction
I am working for a heritage regeneration trust, making a masterplan for the regeneration of the Chance Brothers glassworks site in Smethwick, Sandwell. It is a very historic place: a scheduled ancient monument, in a conservation area, with eight listed buildings. Chance Brothers began making glass in Spon Lane in 1824, and became the greatest glass manufacturers in Britain. They developed the process of making sheet glass, and made all the glass for the 1851 Crystal Palace, producing 300,000 panes of glass in a few months.
They also made the opal glass for the four clock faces of Big Ben, but possibly their greatest claim to fame is their lighthouse lenses. They became specialists in designing and making rotating Fresnel lenses, huge mechanisms several metres tall and weighing several tons, which can focus the light from a lamp into a single powerful beam penetrating miles of darkness. There are hundreds of lighthouses with Chance lenses working today, all over the world.
The eight listed buildings in Spon Lane are mostly empty and ruinous. Most of the site, on top of the scheduled ancient monument, is occupied by a skip hire and waste recycling business, recently refused an extension of its planning permission by Sandwell Council. It’s not an attractive place. The trust has decided that the first step in its regeneration of the site should be to build a lighthouse – a monument to Chance Brothers, and maybe a Midlands equivalent of the Angel of the North. We have an offer of a used Chance lens from the Isle of Lewis. The idea is to create a landmark which will surprise people; a lighthouse 175km from the nearest coast.
The local authority is keen on the lighthouse plan. Sandwell is not a place with a clear identity, and many people would be unable to find it on a map. But I had a very negative response when I ran the idea past Highways England (HE). The problem is that along the northern boundary of the Chance Brothers site, on a viaduct on top of James Brindley’s canal, runs the M5 motorway. HE does not wish to see anything near the motorway that could distract a driver’s attention from the road ahead – not even a lighthouse with no light – and it will advise the planning authority accordingly when we submit our planning application.
I am sceptical about the validity of HE’s policy: I have looked at some of the research done into driver distraction. Research can indicate correlations between accidents and external factors, but it’s more difficult to demonstrate causation. The logical result of HE’s policy would be a barren landscape devoid of any points of interest worth looking at: the antithesis of the distinctive and legible landscape populated by landmarks which urban designers seek to make. Would it in fact be possible to make the opposite case, arguing that an eventful and distinctive landscape could contribute to safety by keeping a driver stimulated, orientated and alert? I think fondly of Appleyard, Lynch and Myer’s 1964 book The View from the Road: a hymn to the kinetic experience of driving through the American landscape and townscape, and a toolkit for urban designers to code that experience.
When I drive along the M5 some miles south of Sandwell, what I mostly find myself looking at outside the car is the sharp profile of the Malvern Hills across the flatland of the Severn Valley. Are mountains a dangerous distraction to the driver? In the name of safety should we obscure them from view by tall fences? This reminds me of Roland Barthes’ ironic reference, in his 1957 book Mythologies, to the Hachette Guide Bleu. He writes that, for the driver, the Guide identifies the ultimate signifier of scenic mountainous landscape as being the road entering a tunnel – inside the mountain. Perhaps driving through a tunnel would be HE’s ideal situation – environment degree zero.
Artist’s impression of proposals for the Chance site
The site and its relationship with the M5 motorway on a viaduct
Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .
He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.