The mezzanine at Waterloo Station has been filled with photographs of railway footbridges — as part of the Network Rail retrospective study.
Railway footbridges range from the ornate iron of Victorian times through simple concrete structures at rural stations and the municipal steel of the 1970s. They are often one of the defining features of railway stations, even more so than the ticket hall, which may look grand (sometimes) from the street, but is often basic at the platform side.
Some bridges are just a way of getting from one side to the other, while others can be a place to linger, to admire views of the town, or the railway.
Often the footbridge shows the history of the station, whether the grand old bridges of ornate ironwork, or even the post-war austerity, the weatherworn bridges show their heritage in the rust and decay. Not ideal for their function, they are nonetherless a symbol of the area. Modern footbridges inserted into old stations are a boon for passengers, but can sit ill at ease with their old ticket offices.
Fortunately, today there is more awareness of how significant a feature footbridges can be, and work has gone into making them less an unwelcome space to use of necessity and into something to be admired in their own right.
To record the variety, Network Rail recently enlisted architectural photographer Luke O’Donovan and architectural historian David Lawrence for a collaboration focused on station footbridges. It doesn’t shy away from the run down, but shows them off in all their brutual existence. Others are filigrees of steel, or blocks of concrete. Even the least inspiring though can look dramatic when set against the local landscape.
This study has come together with shortlisted entries from a recent footbridge design competition run in conjunction with the RIBA to form Network Rail’s first major architectural exhibition in a generation.
The study documents the design evolution of footbridges at British railway stations through a sample of 100 footbridges across the length and breadth of England, Wales and Scotland.
The exhibition considers not just the architectural typologies of footbridges over the years, but also the differing functionalities that they have – how people use them, and how they can interact with the world beyond the railways. The photographs are categorised by six themes which describe the modern usages of footbridges in differing environments.
Themes include ‘landmark’, which divides focus between stations such as Harlow Town, built as a vertically prominent reference point for wayfinding in the planned town, and the likes of East Croydon and Port Talbot Parkway, architecturally eccentric stations which have been built speculatively to set the tone for new urban regeneration projects.
Conversely, the ‘pathway’ chapter draws attention to footbridges including Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Woodbridge, both of which form vital pedestrian routes across the tracks in areas with less built up infrastructure.
Each station is represented by a single image, with each of O’Donovan’s photographs responding to the varied contexts uniquely, playing with different urban scales and capturing the character of locations through candid moments of human (and sometimes animal) interaction.
As a collection of 100 images, the study presents a diverse snapshot of the British built environment in 2018 through its eclectic railway architecture.
The exhibition is now on display at Waterloo Station until 28th April.
You can also download the full 144 page study of Network Rail footbridges here.