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.