Diary

Andrew Saint

In a late story by J.B. Priestley, ‘Underground’, an adulterer bent on escape to voluptuous Brazil boards the Northern Line. At Hampstead everyone else exits; but at the next station, a Golders Green of the imagination, dead souls crowd in and the train trundles him away to the underworld. In A Word Child, surely the best of Iris Murdoch’s non-magical novels, a civil servant racked with remorse cruises for solace round and round the Circle Line, stopping only for refreshment at the platform bars of Sloane Square and Liverpool Street – both, alas, now no more.

One pause between stations in a packed train is enough for the visceral effect of the Underground to grab you. But everyday acquaintance with tunnel-fear is small beer. In the early years of steam and filth, a pioneering American emerged ‘with a taste of sulphur on his lips, a weight upon his chest, a difficulty of breathing and . . . a firm determination to encounter ten jams on Ludgate Hill rather than make another trip on the Underground railway of London’.

Like mining accidents, the intermittent catastrophes on the Underground have taken sinister guise. There were hideous incidents during the Blitz, mostly kept out of the news at the time. Several hundred of those whom Henry Moore ennobled in his wartime drawings of shelterers in the Tube were crushed, drowned or suffocated in catastrophes at Marble Arch, Balham, Bank and Bethnal Green. In 1975 there was the macabre case of Driver Newson, who careered full force into the buffers at Moorgate, taking 41 souls with him. Then in 1987 came the harrowing of the Kings Cross fire, which killed 31 and shook the management of London Underground to its core. Some sort of redemption was needed. Consciously or not, that is what the architecture of the Jubilee Line Extension, conceived three years after Kings Cross, is about.

The salvationist strand to design on the Underground is nothing new. It goes back to Frank Pick, the Yorkshire puritan and businessman who imposed modern aesthetics and a measure of uniformity on the maze of private lines brought together in 1933 as London Transport. Pick also did a great deal of straightforward management, but his name is always linked today with the design and image of the Underground, and with his fellow Northerner, Charles Holden, the architect who restyled several of the interchanges and built new stations on the ends of the Northern and Piccadilly Lines. Together, Pick and Holden are fabled to have created a ‘classic’ Underground image and tradition: signs, a language for posters, Edward Johnston’s alphabet, Henry Beck’s diagrammatic map and so forth. All this has survived in more or less watered-down form. Even now it has been only partly upstaged by the swagger and individualism of the new Jubilee Line stations.

Pick saw all this design work as means to a moral end. A recent study by Michael Saler, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England (1999), dubs him a ‘medieval Modernist’: by which is meant that Pick regarded the purpose of design, and indeed the whole working of the Underground, in the utopian tradition of Ruskin, Morris and Ebenezer Howard. A benevolent authority was to confront Londoners with the best in art, while at the same time pressing them to live freer, fuller and purer lives, preferably at the suburban ends of one of Pick’s lines. Profit came into it, yes; but redemption, discipline and righteousness underlay profit, as so often in Nonconformist libertarianism. Saler is able to show how the early pep-talks Pick gave at the Salem Chapel Guild in his native York, or the address he wrote in his last year on re-energising religion, tally with the redemptive austerity of the interwar Underground.

How different the circumstances of the ‘JLE’: a fag-end to the blandest of Underground lines, planned in an age not of paternalism but consumerism, during the heyday of the free market and at the nadir in repute and morale of the whole London Transport system; its route manipulated for the sake of the buccaneering Docklands experiment; its funding alternately promised and withheld by grudging governments; its execution mired in cost overruns and engineering entanglements. How could such a project resume Pick’s purpose of salvation through design? Yet that is what the stations of the Jubilee Line Extension manage to do. Forget the superficialities of imagery and remember Pick’s vision of moral uplift, and the new stations stand on all fours with the ‘Underground tradition’.

The key lies in a series of chances and oversights; in the eagerness of the architectural profession, against reason, to drape itself in a priestly mantle with regard to the welfare of cities; and in the persuasiveness and tenacity of one remarkable figure, the Anglo-Italian architect Roland Paoletti.

Ever since the Pompidou Centre, architects have been preaching, with much success, that the excitement and gusto that only they can provide with ‘landmark’ buildings are critical to urban regeneration. So far as London goes, the sundry millennium projects of dome, wheel and so on are a test of this belief; it will be intriguing to see whether it can be sustained. Originally, the JLE played no part in this feast of landmarkery. For one thing, the extension was supposed to be ready well before the current climax of architectural gymnastics. Nor had experience of the Victoria Line and earlier sections of the Jubilee Line readied architects to think there was anything for them in new Tube stations besides the ‘fit-out’. As Richard MacCormac, whose firm has designed the new Southwark Station, put it: ‘the engineers design the system, then the architects dress it up. Was it just a matter of deciding which tiles to put on the platform walls?’ When Paoletti started looking for architects to design the new stations, there was no stampede to his door.

The role of the client is always crucial to good architecture. When that client is himself an architect who knows how to wield a client’s powers to advantage, there is hope of a handsome outcome. That Paoletti was in a position, a decade ago, to procure architects to design 11 major new stations, a train depot, ventilator shafts and various other odds and ends, was one of those rare puffs in the wind that alone allow anything special to happen in British public architecture. From a Treasury point of view, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One must know a little of his history to appreciate how he slipped into his position – and hence into a prestige now little short of Pick’s.

Roland Romano Paoletti was born in London to Italian parents during the Fascist period, evacuated to Scotland and Ireland, and then trained as an architect in Manchester. He worked for Basil Spence for some years, but England never quite agreed with him. When he got the chance he refound his roots at the Istituto Universitario in Venice, sitting at the feet of the top architectural maestri of the early Sixties – Albini, De Carlo, Gardella and Scarpa. Spence then asked him to do the working drawings of his British Embassy in Rome, for which Paoletti opened a one-man office there. The great architect-engineer Pier Luigi Nervi had a watching brief over the job. When the Embassy project got delayed by government cuts, Nervi took Paoletti into his own, intimate office. It seems to have been for his new assistant’s sake that Nervi agreed to take on the Italian Embassy in Brasilia. This in its turn was designed and then postponed. So Paoletti worked on two prestigious embassies for different countries – both the victims of stop-go policies, both built after he had moved on. He began to understand.

Where Paoletti moved on to, as the Nervi practice ran down, was Hong Kong. Here it was that the blooding necessary for the JLE took place. In 1975 he got a job with the fledgling Hong Kong Mass Transit Authority. At that juncture expertise was flowing outwards, in the usual colonial direction. After three complete MTR lines, as many train depots (each with a gigantic housing neighbourhood on top) and 36 stations, all built within a dozen years, the tide was to reverse itself, back from Hong Kong towards London. The manner in which a whole new underground system was slashed into the fabric of Hong Kong was impressive but brutal, and hardly conducive to grace. Accountants were in charge; there were neither town-planners nor structural engineers, let alone architects, just mud-movers and alignment engineers. In the stations, Paoletti ended by reducing to basics the elegant fit-out proposed by the English gentlemen Modernists of Sir Misha Black’s Design Research Unit. The Hong Kong lines were built by the cut-and-cover method, not in deep-bored tunnels, so the stations emerged as raw, horizontal caverns, vast enough to accommodate trains twice the length you have in London, and differentiated by colour alone. Efficiency was the brief, not salvation.

In 1990 the JLE got the go-ahead. At this juncture the critical figure was Sir Wilfred Newton, the accountant who had finished off the Hong Kong MTR and then been asked back by Margaret Thatcher to sort out London Transport. Newton promptly called for his little band of Hong Kong experts. And so Paoletti, after some hard bargaining, came back to England. In the final stage of the MTR he had tried without success to sneak a little architecture back into things. He had some clear ambitions: appoint hungry young architects, let them colonise not just the surface but the internal spaces as well (Holden never got far below ground), spend more money on some stations than others – and above all, make it happen. He was not against variety. Because of the dimensions of existing trains and tunnels, the ‘Underground tradition’ would have to be respected in signage and at platform level, but the whole thing had become too flabby to carry on with lock, stock and barrel. They didn’t hesitate to switch from Dec to Perp in the cathedrals, so why should they on the Underground?

Chances were that it would all be stopped. But Newton had secured the ringfencing of the whole project from the London Transport empire, giving it its own management, methodology – and money. And, by a fluke, the engineers above Paoletti were unusually supportive until an overall manager was appointed in 1993. By then it was too late: he had all his architects, and their designs were well into the working drawings that the engineers for the new stations needed to get ahead, making it impossible to replan them. He had taken Canada Water, the first off the drawing board, through London Transport’s Design Committee, and had Newton’s successor, Dennis Tunnicliffe, eating out of his hand: he was home and dry and could withstand the brickbats of the cost-cutters.

Brickbats that still fly: for the volume of several of the stations, chiefly the august sequence of Canada Water, Canary Wharf and North Greenwich, leaves the traveller used to squeezing along eight-foot passages agape, and likely to suppose that money and time actually spent on malfunctioning systems of train-separation have been squandered on a Muscovite underground monumentality. Paoletti is adamant that there is little wasted space, at least on the floors. Congestion in the old stations, plus the experience of Kings Cross, where the death toll was exacerbated by combustible surfaces and choked exits, have wrought a costly revolution in space standards and finishes. In the big stations, furthermore, there had to be room for ‘cross-overs’, in other words for trains to switch from one side to the other and reverse direction.

But there is an aesthetic and moral reason, too, for all this space. To perform his priestly work of redemption, Orpheus, or rather Apollo, must descend into the underworld. This, courtesy of the ‘Hong Kong box’, he is now able to do. If you bore a tunnel out for an underground station, you are still in darkness. But if you scoop out a great box from above, you can let the light flood down in; that is what has been done all along the JLE. You will have to put the lid back on top of your box, whether for the sake of a Parliamentary building (Westminster), a bus station (Canada Water, North Greenwich), a park (Canary Wharf) or just some future ‘air-rights development’ (Bermondsey, Southwark). But it still gives you a tract of space below the lid to play with; and if you manipulate the healing daylight well, you can get it to bounce off roofs and walls and pour deep into the bowels of the earth, if never to the platforms themselves (though MacCormac did toy with putting in colossal mirrors to reflect down to the lower concourse at Southwark).

Space: that most metaphysical yet obstinate of Modernist architectural mantras, an invocation of the sequence of emptinesses between structures and surfaces. It has seldom gone down well in England, which enriched the mouldings of its cathedral walls rather than thinning them down to volumetric containers, as the French did; and which has systematically shrunk or privatised public spaces, inside and outside buildings alike. The very word ‘space’ has a passivity alien to the German Raum, whence the whole idea of spatial aesthetics sprang at the end of the 19th century. Amplitude wedded to articulation of enclosed space have been hard to achieve in England. They got their first major outing together in the foyers of the Royal Festival Hall. On the Underground, Holden never had much chance to parade them. But at the same time as the Festival Hall, they were trotted out in parvo at the obscure Gants Hill on the Central Line – in socialist homage to the concourses of the Moscow Metro.

Canary Wharf Station stands for the high point of the spatial ideal on the JLE. Not everything that Foster Associates do is magnificent; they are uneasy contextual architects, and have struggled at the Royal Academy and British Museum. But give them a bare site, a large volume, a clear brief and much the biggest budget for any of the stations, and they will build consummately, like the engineers of refinement they are at heart. In their hands the Hong Kong box becomes the belly of a colossal whale, ribbed with double vaults that perch high on a long line of concrete piers and capitals of slender shapeliness: all this you contemplate as you are drawn down in processionally by escalator, along with the light. The paraphernalia of signage and ticketing are mopped up with a contemptuous neatness, sidelined to the one voluminous idea. The Canary Wharf concourse is destined to become the defining image of the JLE. As a symbol for Docklands, would that it might replace the lumpen profile of Canada Square and its tower hard by, in the basements of which may be found a mean and dispiriting shopping centre – an object lesson in how not to build underground public space.

North Greenwich and Canada Water, cheaper comrades in gigantism, cannot match the assurance of Canary Wharf. Both opt for mosaic cladding, a finish from Hong Kong not necessarily less sombre than concrete, as Fosters have shown. North Greenwich, the exit for the Dome, is even bigger than Canary Wharf and also boasts a football-field concourse over the platforms, perforated by fat, V-shaped columns. Everything below ground is a deep blue, with an inconsequential sprinkle of scarlet: a decorative, rather English idea on the part of its architect, Will Alsop. Canada Water is one of three stations largely dealt with by the in-house team of JLE architects under Paoletti, the others being the subterranean interchanges at London Bridge and Waterloo, where little architectural glory was to be garnered. It has the industrial finishes of the Hong Kong MTR, and by tipping the box on end promises a cavernous adventure down to the running tunnels deep in the earth. On the same lines, a Wellsian note of ominous descent is contrived by Michael Hopkins at Westminster, through the intermingling of escalators and trusses.

Bermondsey and Southwark, smaller stations, play these games with more delicacy. At Southwark, on a tight site, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard have enriched the angular route that must be taken to and from trains with a wall of cut glass designed with the artist Alexander Beleschenko and based on a set-design by Schinkel for The Magic Flute. Here again is the resonance of ordeal or hazard overcome, though a hint of the labyrinth might have been apt. It is a moot point whether the wayfarer’s road to redemption, or at least distraction, might not have been better served by more art along the line, in the manner of Moscow, and fewer tricks with light; there seems to have been some fear of decoration. But for simplicity and calm the prize goes to Ian Ritchie’s Bermondsey Station, where the high-tech movement does what it ought to do, give you the structure of the place freshly and without fuss. You go into the ticket hall straight off the Jamaica Road, take a right down by escalator into the open box, then right again under a doughty display of trusses withstanding the thrust against the walls, and so arrive on the platform.

When you reach the trains, the layout everywhere is the familiar London one, give or take a few personal tricks (handsome blue fascias at Bermondsey). But no one has managed to integrate the clumsy safety screens that London Transport has insisted on at platform edge, to stop people falling on to the tracks – a euphemism for the frequent attempts at suicide. These screens occur only in the subterranean stations, confirming that a gruesome route to eternity beckons more often below ground.

The three above-ground stations at the eastern end of the line (Canning Town, West Ham and Stratford) are an anticlimax after the drama of the deep caverns. All have had interchange problems to wrestle with; at Stratford, the excitement of a big canopy slewed across the concourse distracts from the up-and-down route the passenger must take between ticket office and Jubilee Line platforms. There is some fussiness here and at Canning Town: hard-of-access glass already getting dirty or even cracked, and other details which may be punished by hard use. Holden did his best Underground work in the sweet air of the suburbs, and it is to these open stations that his Dutch-influenced sobriety is more pertinent, as Van Heyningen and Haward perhaps felt when they adapted his hardy style of brickwork for West Ham. Yet these are not suburbs but long-damaged outposts of the East End. To their communities the JLE’s promise of rebirth is powerful, so long as the trains run to time and the stations can be kept spick, span and safe.

There can have been few occasions when London has seen so many aspiring works of architecture on the same theme opened simultaneously; a parallel with the City churches built after the Great Fire is not out of place. The JLE stations are by any standards extraordinary. But mature judgment ought to wait. No building should be reviewed just after its completion, least of all ones which need to be proved in use. After the hard knocks have begun and a few trains have got stuck in tunnels, the value of Roland Paoletti’s deftly orchestrated competition as to the spirit and meaning of the London Underground might well be put to a poll of travellers.

Will they, the ultimate clients of the new architecture, rise to the bait of the JLE’s spaces, or will they come to look on all this largesse as bread and circuses intended to distract them from the hardship of riding a still tenuous and undersubsidised system? Time will tell. To Paoletti it will not matter so much, for in the spring he retires to Lucca: the kind of place where architecture is taken more as it comes than in London. Those of us left to our regular journey in stygian gloom are less likely to be contemplating art and redemption than whether the ferryman, in the shape of London Underground Limited, is about to extort yet another obol for our fare.