'Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World of the motorway service area' is a new monograph with a highly-focused subject matter: the glorious heyday of the British motorway service station. Here was a typology as fresh and dynamic as the chrome-bumpered machines that ploughed up and down the country's newly-minted stretches of highway - fast food for fast people. The glory days didn't last, of course. David Lawrence's book is a labour of love, a piece of intense research that fuses design and social history with a rare passion for his subject matter.
The original motorway rest stops were certainly deserved of this adulation. Much-heralded British modernist Patrick Gwynne was an aficionado of service station design, and even Archigram pitched in with some ideas, while an abandoned scheme by Richard Rogers is also illustrated. As a young mobile population started to shift around the country, these strange spaces took on their own mythologies, partly thanks to the restless travelling of the early rock bands, as well as the romantic ennui of being so modern and yet so apart from traditional spaces of modernity. A strange kind of sexuality emerged - part JG Ballard, part Arthur Hailey.
In Europe and the US the romance has lingered on, perhaps. In the UK, the great sadness is that attention to detail evaporated, as costs were cut and the original chic lost out to lowest-common-denominator design. The service station became a byword for comestible tat, another nail in the coffin of the reputation of British cuisine. There's more to it than that - the lost visual glories, the design, architecture and typography, all belong to a more confident era, unencumbered by the hollow stamp of 'branding' and the clipped-together monotony of system building.
Nostalgia is a curious thing, especially in the realm of architecture and the built environment. Places change and good intentions evaporate, but short of coating every scintillating structure in a thick layer of protective aspic, we simply have to accept that even good design gets lost in time. While continental designs still retained their aura - perhaps by virtue of being foreign - Britain plunged headlong into the prosaic. The service station became an archetype that never quite hauled itself into the modern age, despite being at the cutting edge of commercial architecture in its all-too-brief heyday. Alain de Botton pitches in an essay on 'Loneliness and Little Chefs' and there are plenty of other psychogeographical insights.
Lawrence has spent years expanding his earlier study on the subject, finding new imagery and new angles. His book is a true labour of love, a slice of esoteric history of the kind that should survive the digital era's drive to standardise the size, shape, form and content of our reading matter.