The writer is the FT’s architecture and design critic
The London Underground is one of the great examples of urban branding. Along with the New York skyline and the Eiffel Tower, it exemplifies the city through a language of familiar signs and symbols: the tondo, early modernism letters, the oxblood tiled station designs of Leslie Green’s Edwardian street facades to the Art Deco Suburban Wonders of the Piccadilly Line and, of course, the subway map itself which remains the tool by which many Londoners understand the city.
That map has just a little more color now, with a hint of purple for the new Elizabeth Line running through its center and forking on the outskirts. The simplicity of that graphic line belies a £ 19 billion construction project. It has shaken the city for three decades, seeing the destruction of large portions of London on the surface and the creation of cavernous volumes and meandering tunnels beneath.
Trains have been running through those tunnels regularly since last year. From 24 May they will be populated by passengers. It is an incredible feat of engineering. Winding through the foundations of skyscrapers, beneath the Thames (and through layers of history that have made this project the nation’s largest archaeological dig), 73 miles of track and 26 miles of newly built tunnels stretch from Berkshire to Essex.
During my preview, it was almost creepy sliding down the empty escalators at Paddington’s vast new station – trains move but there’s no familiar airflow as they squeeze behind full-height glass screens. They open silently. Everything is clean, everything works. The signage is clean and clear. The station itself, a huge concrete box, is grand but austere.
The Metro’s latest major project, the eastern extension of the Jubilee Line (opened in 1999), featured powerful and distinctive stations, each designed by a single architect in a flamboyant style. But the days of the iconic building are over. Elizabeth Line stations are functional, crude, and no-nonsense, but no worse. Below ground, the stations are expressed as smooth tubes that deviate around corners in dynamic and complex curves. This smooth shape is dictated by the shotcrete coatings of a tunneling method that looks very different from old cast iron pipes. The effect is calm but a little beige – ads are limited to screens.
There are echoes here of older glories. In Paddington, the domed concrete ceiling slabs with embedded bronze lights evoke designs from Charles Holden’s 1930s Piccadilly Line works, the diamond grid ceiling structure at Farringdon has hints of Westminster and the neighbor’s jewels Hatton Garden. But overall the architecture remains contained.
The quality, however, decreases as it recedes. Ilford and Romford, on the outskirts of Essex, have a gloomy and utilitarian feel and there is nothing better in the west. This is a missed opportunity; Central London already has its own identity, but the fast-changing suburbs may have used elegant stations to set the standard for developers.
The opening will unleash a new wave of resentment from the rest of the country where, one might suggest, £ 19 billion could have made a real difference for everything from bus lines to cycle paths. There will be complaints about an expensive route for Canary Wharf bankers to get to Heathrow. The system’s designers point out, however, that building the line has been a boon to manufacturers, from enameled signs made on the Isle of Wight to Cardiff steel.
Some underground projects can alter the aboveground city very little; this was not one of them. The West End from Tottenham Court Road to Bond Street has been under construction for years, the stunning Astoria venue has been lost and the replacements are forgettable at best, hideous at worst, gaudy commercial monsters in gold, pink and too much glass. The city has thickened above the new stations, large new buildings have appeared from Bond Street to Woolwich – all of this is changing the skyline.
Just a few weeks ago, images of tens of thousands of people taking refuge on the Kiev metro were omnipresent. Likewise, people huddled together to take cover in the London Underground against the Blitz. But the Kiev Metro was consciously designed as a palace for the people, sumptuous, Rococo, full of works of art and crowned with chandeliers. The London Underground has been increasingly practical, a sensible if revolutionary cumulative work: the first underground, recently in step with newer, brighter and more high-tech versions.
The Tube is a functional thing, it carries people, but it also defines the way we work or play. It can alter the way we use, see and understand the city. Such a project is not just an engineering undertaking. As illustrated by the way its symbols have taken root in our reading of the city, the subway is also culture.