A64 York Bypass
Yorkshire County Council and Highways Agency, 1976

Textural Infrastructure

Underside of bridge under construction with crane
Fig. 1: the new A64 bypass under construction in 1975. Photographer unknown, reproduced from York Press with permission of Simon Walton.

The proposition for the creation of an outer ring road for York was first mooted as far back as 1948, but it was not until 1976 that the first section was opened, taking traffic out of the centre of the city.1 The road follows a section of the Roman road that ran from Chester to Bridlington, intersecting Ermine Street – the Old North Road at York. The bypass was first introduced as a requirement for the reduction of traffic in the centre of York as far back as 1943 and was included in the York Corporation scheme for the development of the city as part of the Town and Country Planning Act (1947). The plan was commissioned by the architect Professor Stanley Davenport Adshead and Major Needham, assisted by the City Engineer C. J. Minter, to formulate a proposal that would celebrate the historic buildings of the city while still addressing the future of the city’s growing industrial needs. Although a major element of the scheme, it still took another 30 years for the construction of the bypass to begin. However, once commissioned, the construction of the road moved forward quickly. A nine-mile dual carriageway stretch was opened in April 1976, at a cost of £12 million.

Little information is available as to the civil engineers who designed and worked on the project overseen by what is now known as the Highways Agency, but there are several clues that show that this project was not just a utilitarian project to them. Alongside the structural integrity of the infrastructure, including a number of bridges to cross access roads and the river Ouse, various design elements are included in its construction which are of a purely decorative nature and are important to note.

People standing under bridge
Fig. 2: the unveiling  ceremony of the A64, 1976. Photographer unknown, reproduced from York Press with permission of Simon Walton.

The largest bridge structure over the river Ouse features one of these design elements and is seen in these two early photos of the bypass bridge at Bishopthorpe. As is clear, the underside of the north and south carriageways have a serpentine form. This design element has no particular function and cannot be seen by vehicles travelling over the bridge. However, walking underneath or travelling by boat along the course of the river, the elegant curves of the bridge are evident alongside the indelible textural detailing of the board-marked concrete. The organic textural qualities of the moulding contrast starkly with the material of construction. But these elements when viewed closely invoke a primitive sensual affinity to the structure as though it has grown out of the surrounding earth. Walking underneath the structure on many Covid-initiated walks, without the thundering traffic passing overhead, the bridge felt almost alive as dappled sunlight rippled onto the underside, creating waves within the serpentine construction. 

Other decorative features that are apparent in the bridges over the length of the bypass are observed in the precase interlocking panels, created using a pre-formed mould, used to create barrier walls for both pedestrians and vehicles. The relief moulding is not part of an engineering specification but a purely decorative element. The intricately shaped moulds for these structures would have increased construction costs, however it was obviously believed that these structures needed to be both engineeringly sound and aesthetically pleasing.

Bridge going over footpath
Fig. 3: the precast panels and underpass beneath the A64. Photo: © Lucia Martin, 2021.
Concrete panels
Fig. 4: detail view of the panels. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.
Textured concrete pillar behind metal barrier
Fig. 5: photograph showing detailing on side support of bridge, 2022. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Not knowing who the engineers were on this project prevents us from understanding the motivations behind these ornamental details that were incorporated into their designs. But it is these little touches, easily overlooked, that make a huge difference to the impact that infrastructure projects such as these have on our built environment.