A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

Brian Hayes

W.W. Norton 2005

Britain From Above

Ian Harrison

BBC 2008
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Often neglected in comparison with "natural" landscapes, the industrial structures and sites and landscapes created by humans are the subject of Infrastructure, which tours mining, dams and other "waterworks", agriculture, oil and gas plants and pipes, power plants and transmission, communications, roads and railways and bridges and tunnels, aviation and shipping, and wastes and recycling. The treatment is mostly US-centric, with some examples from Europe and a few from the rest of the world.

Hayes includes explanations of small details — what does this marking mean? what is that fitting? — as well of broader contexts — what is that building for? how does this facility fit into national networks? The focus is on visible features, taking a "surface" rather than a process- or system-oriented approach, but not strictly so. So there are descriptions of the entirely underground parts of gas and oil wells, explanations of how the packet-switched Internet differs from the traditional virtual-circuit phone system, and so forth. There's often some historical background as well, which can be essential to understanding why features have the form they do.

"Some transmission-line conductors consist of aluminium strands wrapped around a steel core. Steel is only a mediocre conductor, but it adds mechanical strength. The steel-core conductors are named for birds rather than flowers. The type designated starling, for example, has 26 aluminium strands surrounding seven finder steel strands."
"In the design of most roads built before the twentieth century, the reference vehicle was an ox cart, and the design speed was a few miles per day. There was a brief but shining interlude, around 1900, when the needs of bicyclists came to the forefront in roadway engineering, but since then cars and trucks have been totally in command. Many of the biggest roads exclude all other traffic."

Infrastructure is nicely illustrated with photographs, with the smaller ones fitted into the wide margins and the larger ones ranging up to full-page, but these illustrate the text rather than dominating it. A tremendous amount is covered: some of it is perhaps just curiosity-satisfying, but it also explores important aspects of human civilization that rarely get much exposure.

Britain From Above covers similar subject material, mostly industrial and commercial and agricultural sites and landscapes, with some monumental and natural ones thrown in, but restricts itself to aerial perspectives, using modern imaging techniques.

The format consists of double-page "stories", typically with a small one-paragraph text box on a single large photograph or with a full-page photograph on one side facing half a page of text and smaller photographs on the other. So the photography dominates and this, along with the focus on single sites, makes Britain From Above more attention-grabbing but considerably less informative than Infrastructure.

Among the locations covered are: Scotland's glacial landscapes, the Norfolk Broads, the Menwith Hill radomes, the Glasgow Docks, the Cambridge Science Park, the M25/M11 interchange at night, the Felixstowe Docks ("Just in Time Delivery"), Stonehenge, and pickers in an asparagus field.

"Bluewater Shopping Centre near Greenhithe, Kent. This massive shopping centre has 155,700 square metres of retail floor space, making it Britain's second biggest shopping centre after the MetroCentre in Gateshead, Tyne & Wear, and the fourth biggest in Europe. Opened in 1999, Bluewater occupies 240 acres of a disused chalk quarry and has 333 shops, more than forty food and drink outlets, a twelve-screen cinema and a climbing wall. It has parking for 13,000 cars and 100 coaches, and serves some 27 million people per year, or nearly 75,000 every day."

Britain From Above is based on the same material as a television series of the same name, but doesn't attempt to copy that. It omits almost all the "talking heads" biographical material and the author stays out of sight, unlike the television presenter. The book is engaging and easy to browse or read through, but the television series, running for over four hours, has considerably more meat to it and rarely drags, so for once I would recommend the audiovisual format.

Note: A revised and updated edition of Infrastructure has just (October 2014) been published.

November 2014

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%T Infrastructure
%S A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
%A Hayes, Brian
%I W.W. Norton
%D 2005
%O hardcover, further reading, index
%G ISBN 0393059979
%P 536pp

%T Britain From Above
%A Harrison, Ian
%D 2008
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781862058699
%P 210pp