Magazine article The Spectator

Underground Triumph

Magazine article The Spectator

Underground Triumph

Article excerpt

Thank goodness it is over at last. But at least the egregious millennial hype has had its uses. New Year's Eve demonstrated the necessary, essential virtues of public transport: how else could some 3 million people have been moved into the centre of London and out again, reasonably efficiently (and why not have the Underground working all night at other times?)? As for that negation of architecture, that ephemeral monument to vacuity - the circular plastic tent at North Greenwich - it has justified itself if only by encouraging the completion of the Jubilee Line extension to enable the hoped-for millennial hordes to reach it.

I spent the afternoon of New Year's Day exploring this new arm of the London Underground system and its stations for the first time. Although the merits of railway and subway architecture can only really be assessed after some years of hard use, it nevertheless seems to me that the new stations are a triumph and may well come to be regarded as the most impressive monuments of British architecture of the past decade - structures in which the high tech obsession with engineering has purpose and relevance. Given the climate of hostility to investment in public utilities which prevailed while the Jubilee Line extension was being conceived and planned, that this should be so is all the more remarkable. This triumph is largely due to Roland Paoletti, the Anglo-Italian architect in charge of the architectural side of the project who succeeded not only in controlling the engineers who might otherwise have maintained the tradition of mediocrity which characterises the Victoria Line but also allowed a number of different architects considerable freedom to create individually memorable stations.

Of course, the London Underground had earlier triumphs. Nikolaus Pevsner regarded it as the greatest patron of the arts in Britain between the two world wars, and this was almost entirely due to the earnest and moralising administrator Frank Pick. It was Pick who commissioned the architect Charles Holden to design the new stations on the Piccadilly Line, in particular, which became the most widely illustrated and highly regarded examples of modern British architecture of the 1930s. I believe that constant reference to the Pick-Holden tradition in London transport rather irritates Paoletti, but he seems to have respected it nevertheless. Something of the puritanism which both Pick and Holden exuded is evident in the austere grey finishes of concrete, steel and glass which prevail in most of the new stations, together with the comparative absence of advertisements on the platform walls and their total exclusion from the escalators: as always, good design is dictatorial, disliking the often anarchic vulgarity of commerce. There are also echoes of Holden's suburban temple at Arnos Grove in the circular glass drum at Canada Water, while the 1930s style is intelligently echoed in the clock tower and the glass brick walls at West Ham - the only station (by Van Heynigen & Hayward) which dares to use decent red brickwork.

Even so, the interested visitor exploring the new line from Westminster to Stratford should forget all preconceptions, for nothing like these new Underground stations has ever been seen before in London, or Britain. …

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