London Gets A Design Evolution


The London Underground kept its original look for so many years because of Frank Pick, the unassuming CEO who put together a small team to modernise its design. Frank had no training in art and design, but he knew some people who did; typographer Edward Johnston, whose graceful typeface is still used today, Harry Beck, who designed the iconic tube map, now copied all over the world, and a raft of superb artists who gave a unique stamp to the company’s posters.

One of the most unusual stations that shows their work to best advantage is Piccadilly Circus, firstly because it has no surface buildings at all yet has a strong identity. Everything is below ground, built around a tiled circular core with brass inlays, polished wood and white ceramics. The Circle Line happened by accident; two competing lines chose clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, creating a perfect loop.

Now, though, a new service for a more crowded age has brought a radical rethink on the design of tube stations, with immense halls of glass and parallel steel bars drawing light into grand spaces. I like it less – to me it appears more generic – but find it more practical for living today. Piccadilly Circus station is narrow and mad late at night on a Saturday – but fun if you’re in the right mood.

The new look is being echoed in the Square Mile, which has retained its confusing alleyways but is now filled with this slatted-steel and glass design which, in some forms, is surprisingly baroque. The backstreets around St Paul’s are as cluttered as ever, and the new buildings feel quite personal at pedestrian level – of course you can’t access them without a lanyard, but that’s no different to the old system of having a porter’s lodge.

Other buildings like the new Francis Crick centre and St Pancras have this curving steel-ribbed look, while the former has a dozen tall chimneys that add a touch of Gustav Doré to the scene. The new London Bridge station adds a further element; wood. Far from being minimalist this new look is dense, decorative and rather well suited to the capital. It feels as if architects have decided to mentally scrap eighties, nineties and noughties architecture, and branch off their style from the 1950s, specifically commemorating the Festival Hall, a building I suspect every Londoner holds dear.

Today I walked from Broadway Market in Hackney to Islington and the West End, and realised there are many parts of London that look like film sets. When I tried to understand why London still ‘felt’ the same even while looking different in places, I realised it was because in most cases the road layouts, based on ancient hedgerows, had been kept.

This is largely out of necessity; there’s too much going on underneath London to start messing with it (as the Crossrail delay proves) and it’s far hillier than most people realise, which you’ll know if you’ve walked from Holborn Viaduct to Blackfriars (it involves several flights of stairs and a split-level pavement).

So, redesign by stealth or careful planning? Let’s decide once Crossrail is finished and we can see the bigger picture.

4 comments on “London Gets A Design Evolution”

  1. snowy says:

    Part of the way London developed particularly the preservation of green bits, may have come from the hand of a Scottish one-armed opium addict, who encountered his wife-to-be after tracking down the anonymous author of a rather striking novel*. [He thought the author would be a man and was rather surprised when he turned out to be a she.]

    [*In what might be the first ‘steampunk’ fiction, ‘In 2126, everybody travels routinely by air, but anyone planning a countryside break, but concerned about about not finding accommodation can have their house sent ahead, they are fitted with grooves to allow them to pass along railway lines, a servant just has to stoke the steam motor and drive it down**. But having grown tired of life’s routine, a party sets out from London by balloon to Eygpt, bent on revivifying the body of Cheops in his pyramid’. Hmmm… what could possibly go wrong?]

    [**Some of the ideas she dreamed up were rather more outlandish, robot surgeons, an exclusively female monarchy and women wearing trousers; well it was 1827 when she wrote it.]

    [The other reason lots of bits look the same is very dull and involves Building Regulations and Builder’s Pattern books.]

  2. Jan says:

    London’s layout is to my mind largely created by the presence of the Thames tributaries (or pseudo tributaries in the case of the Neckinger)

    The border between The City of Westminster and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is caused pretty much by the presence of the River Westbourne. Which incidentally caused a border between two of London’s great estates the Grosvenor and the Cadogan.

    A few areas can definitely trace their origins down to the existence of ancient hedgerows though and one such area is “Highgate”.

    The name Highgate most likely arises from the corruption of a Saxon word “Haeg” meaning hedge.

    This hedge -gate let people cross to a track through a hedgerow which led into Ancient Woodland – which was in the medieval period private land used as a deer park. A crossroads eventually developed out of this gate way which eventually becomes a formal toll gate on relatively busy roads in Tudor times and beyond.

    This original path which in medieval times ran through the East part of the deer park in ancient woodland could have existed since Neolithic times or possibly (unbelievably) earlier! To be respected throughout the Saxon then Norman period such a track needed to be really old.

    Incidentally a small section of this ancient woodland still exists in the form of Highgate woods where Roman pottery and even a Roman pottery Kiln have been discovered.

    As always the Saxons were none too keen stepping into the Romans vacated spaces and build their settlement about a miles away in what is now Hornsey. You are probably all snoozing now….ZzzZz…when you read this sort of stuff it strikes me as being on a par with Snowys theories above. London’s multilayered. complex history bewilders and befuddles in turn.

    I spend a lot of time now visiting ancient standing stones, henges and circles here in Dorset. sometimes the history of a place starts and ends with the one monument. London is a totally different game. It’s wonderful really. Tortuous and an investigators nightmare but interesting.

    Did I mention that recently (Well relatively recently) a ancient hedge was discovered on Fryent Way NW9 a posh bit of Wembley Park/ Kingsbury suburb? Part of an ancient Pilgrim route between St Albans and Westminster Abbey/Thorney Island. Right I’ll shut up now. Promise!

  3. snowy says:

    The paragraphs that contained the all important things like er… facts seems to have evaporated.

    John Claudius Loudon [1783-1843] was a bit of a polymath: biologist, botanist, agriculturist, architect, city planner, publisher and author.

    No slouch he, penning an article entitled ‘Observations on Laying out the Public Spaces in London’ [1803]. His publishing concern, work for private clients and trips abroad to study continental practices would occupy him for a couple of decades before he felt moved to write ‘Hints for Breathing Places for Metropolis’ [1829]. When London’s need for more burial spaces became urgent, his energies among with many others was diverted into the problem. His thoughts and experiences would be expanded in to ‘On the Laying Out, Planting and managing of Cemeteries’ [1843].

    Jane Wells Webb Loudon [1807–1858] wrote less than a handful of fictional works, including ‘The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century’,switching her talents to popularising gardening as a pastime fit for young ladies.

    Whether or not she merits a mention as a forgotten author, she was in her time famous enough to be mentioned in,

    * Deep Breath – Massively long Victorian book title coming up! *:

    ‘A Cyclopædia of Female Biography: Consisting of Sketches of All Women who Have Been Distinguished by Great Talents, Strength of Character, Piety, Benevolence Or Moral Virtue of Any Kind : Forming a Complete Record of Womanly Excellence Or Ability’ {Edited by Henry Gardiner Adams 1857}.

    [Jan, if you ever had occasion to visit Pinner churchyard, he was responsible for designing the giant upended cheese wedge with the coffin sticking out of it.

    There is an unsubstatiated claim that it was so designed to hang onto an annuity that would be paid out only while both of his parents were “still above the ground”. A bit fanciful, but it may be an architectural joke based on a grain of fact.]

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks Snowy the book looks intriguing.


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