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John Baxter.......Man who designed the Westway dies.

(The man who masterminded London's most hated road

 

" The civil and structural engineer John Baxter, who has died aged 86, was responsible for one of London's most daring - and most reviled - pieces of transport planning, the Westway. But despite all the controversy it provoked, it remained, in Baxter's distinguished career with the consulting engineers Maunsell, among the most innovative uses of concrete in bridge-building or transportation.
Baxter was the mastermind behind the construction of the stretch of elevated motorway that stamped its massive concrete feet across west London, from Shepherds Bush to Marylebone, in the late 1960s. It was designed to speed traffic along the M40/A40 into the heart of the capital by removing a bottleneck at White City; today, critics complain that it merely moved the traffic jams into the West End.

Whatever its shortcomings for motorists, however, the Westway's impact on the boroughs through which it sliced was grave. Its stark concrete aspect brutalised an urban landscape of predominantly 18th- and 19th-century brick housing, and physically severed neighbourhoods. Noise and air pollution became a local scourge.

Many west London residents claimed at the time that they did not know the route's alignment until construction workers moved into their back yards. Reporting on its official opening, the Guardian suggested that Michael Heseltine, then junior transport minister, had rescripted his speech at the last minute, excising praise for the engineers and planners in favour of a pledge to help those living in the structure's shadow.

Baxter himself acknowledged that the project was conceived and built in an era when engineering was carried out on a "decide, announce, defend" basis, with little or no local consultation. In 1976, six years after the Westway was opened, he confessed that it had marked the beginning of the anti-roads campaign.

Despite the criticism, Baxter, an indomitable optimist, stood up for the Westway, maintaining that, in the mid-1960s, it was virtually impossible to imagine the traffic volumes that would clog the capital's roads a decade later, let alone 30 or more years in the future. He also held that technically the project would have been difficult to better. Because it is massively built of concrete, it is quiet in comparison to a steel bridge; concrete dampens noise, while steel tends to resonate and amplify it. The bridge also included electronic heating to prevent ice forming in frigid winters.

Baxter and his colleagues at Maunsell had set out to build the bridge using a pioneering technique - post-tensioned, precast segmental concrete construction - that is still at the cutting edge today. This method involves precasting a series of short concrete deck elements, transporting them to site on lorries and lifting them into position. By stringing cables through the segments along the length of the deck and jacking them tight, the elements are clamped together to form rigid spans capable of carrying traffic.

Its advantages over conventional cast-in-situ concrete are relative speed and simplicity of construction, and its virtues are dramatically shown on the record-breaking, concrete-arched Gladesville bridge, near Sydney, Australia, whose 328m clear span is thought to be unrivalled 39 years after it was completed. Gladesville's dramatic arch is actually composed of four arches side by side. Each is made up of more than 150, 2.5m thick elements sandwiched together and held in compression by tightly stressed steel cables.

Born in London, Baxter left Westminster City school at the age of 16 because he "wanted to get on and do practical things". He put himself through a degree course in his spare time, obtaining a BSc in engineering from the City and Guilds Engineering College, London, at 19.

Professionally, he cut his teeth on concrete structures working for the Trussed Concrete Steel Company (1936-41) and on chemical factories for Shell (1941-52). There he met the engineering star of the day, Guy Maunsell, and joined the firm of Maunsell, Posford and Pavry in 1952, becoming one of four founding partners of the new firm of G Maunsell and Partners in 1955.

Maunsell, then in his 60s, had spent much of his life as a contractor, and instilled in Baxter the ethos that buildability is central to good design. In return, Maunsell was impressed by the much younger Baxter's talent and spirit of get-up-and-go.

As senior partner (1959-80), Baxter expanded the firm of Maunsell from a 45-strong UK practice to an international force of more than 2,000. It continues to excel in the fields of bridge design and transportation. This growth was achieved through Baxter's low-key approach to management, trusting his staff and giving them freedom. In 1976-77, he was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

His wife Jessie, whom he married in 1941, and a daughter survive him.

John Walter Baxter, civil and structural engineer, born June 4 1917; died October 21 2003. "

Andrew Mylius
Monday November 10, 2003
The Guardian
 
 
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