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Off the rails? New design on London Underground

The London Underground has produced some of the capital’s best-loved architecture in its 75 year history. With a £10 billion investment programme under way, can this legacy can be honoured?


By the time Frank Pick became vice chairman and chief executive of the newly formed London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933, this transport company veteran with a passion for design in service of the public good had already made his mark. He had championed posters as an efficient and attractive means of mass communication, and commissioned the minimalist san serif typeface that bears its designer Edward Johnston’s name to letter these and all other LPTB material. Pick had also engaged Charles Holden to build stations for the southern extension of what is now the Northern Line.


Holden had established a reputation for an intelligent deployment of massing and refined detail in both urban and rural contexts through his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission abroad and the British Medical Association and Law Society in London.


For Pick, he created a cost-effective yet attractive architectural system for station façades using planes of Portland stone. Deployed singly for narrow infill plots, multiplied across larger frontages or folded around corner sites, they suited any location and brought a distinctive street presence to the developing deep-level Underground in districts like Clapham South, Tooting Bec and Morden. Holden also designed the LPTB’s new headquarters, the highly innovative cruciform tower of 55 Broadway with its abundance of daylight, prestigious materials – travertine, bronze – and sculpture by Epstein, Moore and others.


In his new post, Holden was set to work by Pick on what were to become true design classics: the geometric brick and glass stations of the Piccadilly Line as it pushed north and west. Heavily influenced by contemporary Scandinavian civic architecture, which both men admired and had visited on a research tour in 1930, the likes of Sudbury Town and Arnos Grove relied on careful manipulation of a limited palette of materials to form plain but very elegant boxes in a variety of simple shapes. Clarity of layout, neatly integrated fittings and a lack of applied finishes made the stations practical for users and economic for the client as well as helping define their aesthetic. Welcoming anchors for the emerging commuter suburbs, especially when illuminated at night, these jewels brought good design to the populace, right down to the seating and lighting.


War interrupted this benevolence. By its end Pick had retired and Holden was less involved, and new or rebuilt stations in the austerity-racked 1950s were cruder with cheaper finishes and less ambition. Witty visual puns in coloured tile for each of the new Victoria Line’s station platforms in the 1960s and a snazzy terminus at Heathrow a decade later were bright spots in a long post-war decline that was only halted in the 1980s. Then, a series of vivid refurbishments seemed to reflect that decade’s brashness, most (in)famously Eduardo Paolozzi’s eye-popping mosaics at Tottenham Court Road.


Today, London Underground (LU)’s ambitious, ten-year Transforming the Tube project aims to ready the network for the 21st century and the 2012 Olympics. Already hugely controversial for its public-private funding and seemingly endless delays, the scheme is transforming London’s hard-worked stations and even adding new ones. But are the results architecture worthy of their pioneering predecessors?  


Refurbishment is planned for very many stations. Bringing new communications, security and safety equipment behind the scenes, this work is also advertised as restoring historic features. In reality this has meant replacing swathes of existing tiling lining booking halls, passages and platforms. Many schemes unaltered since construction eighty years ago are being affected. Notable for subtle arrangements of tiles in various colours incorporating original station names and carefully highlighting exits, as documented in loving detail by Douglas Rose in his many publications and website, they are being stripped wholesale and replaced by exact replicas or wholly new schemes.


Architectural education and conversation charity the Twentieth Century Society has already raised concerns over the loss of work by such artists as Leslie Green. English Heritage, on the other hand, takes what it believes is a pragmatic approach, endorsing the retention of large panels of original tile where this survives but also the complete replacement mentioned earlier.


Elsewhere, refurbishment of Holden’s much-admired 1938 station at Uxbridge, a vast concrete cathedral complete with clerestory windows and side aisles that is the western terminus of the Piccadilly Line, is essentially complete.


Here, the distinctive unpainted board-marked concrete that Holden used to boldly finish the station has been cleaned and stained-glass windows, railway clocks and indicator boards preserved.  Electrical services have been hidden in new flat metal beams suspended by thin stainless steel tie-rods from the station structure. It’s a bold but sensitive intervention whose contemporary nature reads well against the bare concrete although it’s very unfortunate that these beams carry on right across the double-height entrance hall, interrupting this volume.


Security cameras are mounted on tapered, skeletal stainless steel pylons satisfyingly reminiscent of Hector Guimard’s celebrated contribution to the Paris Métro. It’s a particularly inspired solution to a tricky problem which has seen the crass use of appallingly over-engineered box section members elsewhere.


Partial rebuilding is the next element of the project. The vast King’s Cross St Pancras interchange is the most visible example of this formidably difficult task. Allies and Morrison were required to improve the flow of the  people passing through the station every day – increased dramatically by the new Eurostar service – whilst staying within the footprint of the existing cramped station. This has been achieved by removing walls around the Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City Line platforms and enlarging the ticket hall. Their new, double-height Western Ticket Hall is impressive, linking the tube station to the refurbished St Pancras station and Euston Road, although the new Northern Ticket Hall is rather harsh and bleak with its flat lighting.


Successful engineering of this scale and complexity is commendable, but as with last century’s comparable project, the Jubilee Line extension, the quality of workmanship is sometimes less than the ambition of the overall design.


In the main circulation areas battleship grey is the only colour; intended to be easily cleanable, it fails to raise the spirit and compares badly to the work of Green and others. And despite decades of experience with the material, mosaic is often patchily applied and already discoloured around grout lines. Reducing the number of ticket barrier lines has eased passengers’ journeys, but some of the benefit is lost with the introduction of ugly, semi-permanent glass and steel barriers to split passenger flow directionally.


Whatever is done below ground is invisible from above, of course, but further west, arrival of the multi-billion-pound Westfield London shopping mall coupled with a useful £170m developer’s contribution to the public purse has prompted a frenzy of reconstruction in Shepherd’s Bush including a very visible and completely new tube station.


Wood Lane on the Hammersmith & City Line is a modest affair by Ian Ritchie Architects, a flattened funnel threaded through the existing brick viaduct. Open to the street, it sucks in passengers and shoots them up to the platforms via lifts and stairs. Though still essaying the severe look of the Jubilee Line extension and King’s Cross St Pancras, a little visual relief has been provided through use of gold anodised aluminium panels lining the underside of the arches and forming the ceiling of the passageways. Against a background of exposed brick, fittings in brushed steel and blue lacquer, the Underground’s new universal kit of parts adaptable to stations both old and new, stand out.


It’s a crisp, no-nonsense look relying on solid, low-maintenance, self-coloured components, a clear inheritance from Holden. Certainly one hopes exposure to the elements will hurt Wood Lane less than it did Hillingdon, the rebuilding touchstone of the 1990s. A bright white presence hovering above the tracks when built, only fifteen years later its painted steelwork is flaked and yellowing, the station resembling the gutted carcase of a whale.


And what next? A second ticket hall for King’s Cross St Pancras is being built to the west of the Kings Cross mainline station. It is to be hoped that this will feature more of the kind of sensitive work Allies and Morrison carried out in the Western Ticket Hall, where adjacency to the Midland Grand Hotel’s frontage demanded sympathetic restoration combined with new brickwork in the style of Sir George Gilbert Scott as well as the same kit of parts as at Wood Lane. It’s an intimate conjunction which pleases.


And across London, work is about to begin on the long-delayed Crossrail programme which will eventually require the reconstruction of Tottenham Court Road station. What this will bring aesthetically remains to be discovered, but one heritage feature is safe; Eduardo Paolozzi’s murals are to be preserved, ensuring future generations will have a chance to see what the fuss was once about.





Posted 1 April 2009

Wood lane 1
wood lane 3

Design by Adams, Holden and Pearson for Highgate London Underground station (later known as Archway station), 1930. Note the stepped recessing of the façade (RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

wood lane 2

Images of Wood Lane station (Ian Ritchie Architects)

Vic Line - Kings X

Victoria Line platform seating recess at King’s Cross St Pancras, showing rebus tile design by Tom Eckersley based on the station name. It is to be hoped that the continuing refurbishment of the station will remove the crude metal seat, which replaces the simple, unobstructive wooden bench found elsewhere on the line

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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