Mike Ashworth, London Underground's former Design & Heritage Manager, sings the praises of the Jubilee line extension.
"Which is your favourite tube station?" is a question I'm often asked. I worked for many years helping to preserve and restore historic tube stations and so, yes, there are lots of "old" stations to choose from. But, among the most breathtaking and architecturally distinguished stations on the London Underground, you cannot ignore those that make up the Jubilee line extension of 1999-2000 (Westminster to Stratford). They are magnificent. They are underrated.
It's not just me who thinks this. Of the architectural tours I used to lead, those of the Jubilee line extension stations were among the most popular. Indeed, earlier this year that I found myself again, out of 'retirement', visiting these stations 'east of Westminster' with a group of 30 people, and a dog.
They are among the most striking public buildings of their generation — worthy successors to the acknowledged genius of Charles Holden and Frank Pick. We owe this achievement to an equally exacting architect, Roland Paoletti, who oversaw the architecture of the new line. Paoletti managed a rare thing: to marshal different architects and structural engineers to produce stations with individual character but that still spoke a common design language. Before we get to the individual stations, let's take a quick look at the history of the line itself.
Jubilee line: a potted history
The Jubilee line was a long time coming, with its genesis in the years immediately after the second world war. It stemmed from two main desires. The first was to drive a new east-to-west tube line across central London, alleviating pressure on existing lines such as the District, and serving neglected areas in the east and south. For many years this new line — intended to be called the Fleet line due to its route through the city — was aimed squarely at Thamesmead, the massive housing development on the fringes of the Kentish marshes (we all know how that worked out). Its second purpose was to unpick the pre-war work that had given the Bakerloo line two branches north of Baker Street, which had created a highly congested tube line south towards Elephant & Castle.
The first section of the new line opened in 1979. It took over the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo, then ran through new tunnels between Baker Street and Charing Cross. The tunnels at this terminus pointed east, with the intention of a further extension towards the City.
At this point, even more consideration was given as to where the newly-named Jubilee line (after the late Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee) would head to next. The final decision was to abandon the new tunnels from Green Park to Charing Cross, to go south of the river through Waterloo and London Bridge stations, into the new redevelopment areas of the Docklands, and then not go east but north, ending up at Stratford. Construction started in the early 1990s and — in something of a last gasp — was finally completed days before the millennium celebrations centred on the Dome at North Greenwich. We used to joke that the one thing that did come to an end, à la Millennium Bug, was building the Jubilee line.
For most tube station designers, the mark of 'success' is that passengers do not actually look too closely at the place. The idea is a smooth flow of people in and out of the station, on and off the trains. Perhaps a fleeting, reassuring glance at a sign that is always 'familiar' thanks to how it appears visually, no matter what it actually says. You might have to wait on the platform so it could be an advert, carefully positioned so that your eyes pass over it without hesitation; the secret of a good advert is simply that — instant recognition. That's also what is at the heart of the corporate identity, the 'look' of the Underground. Simple recognition by a blend of familiar shapes, colours and spaces.
But to ensure that level of simplicity, a lot of work has to go into the nature of the space and the details it contains. Below, I've picked out five of the Jubilee line extension stations where this under-appreciated work is at its best.
I cannot quote the number of passengers who use West Ham station but who never actually set foot outside it. It is a lot though. This is, primarily, a busy interchange between the Underground, DLR and mainline services. So, in many respects, this is architecture of the interior. The topography of the station with platforms on an embankment and others at street level, means you have to move passengers vertically as well as laterally —- down to street level, back up to get over tracks, to go back again to the platform. Architects van Heyningen and Haward made this journey as intuitive as possible.
The internal spaces are generous — you can see 'where to go' by the nature of the space you are moving through and towards. The street level ticket hall, with the entrance and exit, is a lofty brick box that contains a spacious series of escalators that give access to the overbridge. This again is a clear, light and simple space whose glass brick walls give a hint of a world outside, whilst at night making the station glow in the urban streetscape.
At platform level, on the Jubilee line, what could be just blank, boring brick walls are detailed as to give a sense of rhythm and purpose, the way the bricks are recessed so carefully to make space for the bench seats. Yes, this is beautiful brickwork.
Step outside and you can clearly see how the station building's internal spaces are cleverly held together by repetitive elements. A box-like grid of concrete, brick and glazing, with echoes of those 1930s stations, all held together by an almost single horizontal line. This defines the 'top line' of the building which, underneath, passengers move about.
Tube stations are deep subterranean spaces, with passageways and platforms like drain pipes. The usual method of making people feel secure (and that they are not in a drain pipe) is to make these spaces as bright as possible; white tiles and lots of light. Oddly this can be counter-intuitive. The 'public lavatory' school of architecture is full of glare; edges and corners must stand out, usually by putting something like hazard tape on to show that yes, you've designed a hazard.
So, the first thing that often strikes people at the platforms of North Greenwich station, designed by Alsop, Lyall and Störme, is the deep sense of blue shadow, of the station bleeding out away from you to an undefined edge. The trick here is where you place the light. The brightest spaces show the route along the long, linear mezzanine that runs the length of the great excavated box. Other illuminations highlight the escalators, lifts and stairs. And, at platform level, light provides a calm, cool space in which to wait or alight a train. When describing this to the visitors I find myself speaking in lower, hushed tones as if to match the slightly mystical quality of the space.
The deep blue mosaic tiles make this unmistakably North Greenwich. The mosaics are visually fascinating with myriad surfaces. The vast, angled columns are carefully shot through with lines of orange tiles at head height, alerting you to the changing space under them; an inherent and not applied part of the design. Real detail.
You can imagine my sense of horror a few years ago when I discovered someone had fitted large lengths of galvanised conduit over the mosaic and the visual impact it had here. Managing change — and change has to happen — was an important part of the job. Challenging colleagues to find a more appropriate way of fitting new cables was another skill. The conduit was, here, removed and the new wiring more carefully positioned.
Venture upstairs to find yourself in a different space, one that feels in some ways like a train station, organised and regimented, but that is for buses not trains. Though this vast, sweeping space, designed by Norman Foster & Partners, does not for a moment feel like it, it actually is, I suspect, London's largest bus shelter. It allows a clear view out, under the high curved roof and through the glass, of the red buses moving around, and so instantly alerts you as to the nature and purpose of the place. To be able to simply find, safely wait and board your bus onwards.
To enter into this station, through the deceptively shallow arch of the entrance, and suddenly find yourself on the massed banks of escalators looking down into the intermediate concourse level is a revelatory experience – if not quite religious, as some would have it. Then again, this is the station that appeared in Star Wars, Rogue One, so it clearly has universal appeal. The sense of space and movement through the station is one of the greatest achievements of this remarkable design by Norman Foster & Partners.
It is worth considering that those simple, mighty and unadorned concrete columns do not just help hold up that sweeping gull wing roof, but that they also help hold the floor down against rising water pressure. The station box is, after all, in a drained dock. This station, like the others, rather hides the skills of the structural engineers who, taking the architects' fancy, helped turn it into concrete reality. But yes, this is the station that makes visitors marvel if only because it makes you feel so small as you rise, ant-like, from deep platforms towards the beckoning light of the entrance.
It is also interesting to consider the view of one of my older Underground managers who was always more than baffled about me eulogising such a station. It was, in his 'design book', a failure in that passengers actually had so far to walk. Such is what comes with space and grandiosity. What he'd make of the Elizabeth line I do not care to consider...
On the tour, I brush my finger against the 'simple' stainless steel mesh wall at the bottom of the escalators, explaining that texture is important in design and that this makes for a wall that appears 'solid' but is in fact 'permeable'. It also filters dust so while I carefully wipe my hands I'm able to distract the crowd by asking them to look up. It works quite well as only one or two see me curse quietly! My advice is to look but do not necessarily touch the mesh.
But do look up. Here at Bermondsey, by Ian Ritchie Architects, is one deep tube station where you can see daylight; from the east end of the platforms. The shaft that enables this is both held up and apart by a series of concrete beams, with carefully detailed finishes and shape, that make for a fine vertical sculpture. It is at moments such as this that we need to recall the skills of the consultant engineers in such spaces. They are the people who take the architects' vision and turn them into reality.
Following the light up the escalator I am able to talk about the relative transparency of the station as you can, at and below street level, see out and into the station, with movement on either side of the walls. I also find myself carefully telling the group the story of how the Underground very rapidly removed some of Ritchie's own 'take' on station signs and furniture that made much use of glass and the colour blue. That blue still does, to an extent, survive as a narrow band running around the space, like a frieze. It is, of course, a very Underground colour. One of the palette of corporate colours; the blue bar on the roundel used to give a subtle hint of familiarity.
I also end up, as you do, discussing the floor tiles. It cannot be slippery or too non-slippery. It cannot be too light or it will show dirt, nor too dark as to look like a bottomless pit. It has to be cleaned, correctly, or it will stop being non-slip. Oh, and yes, it should stay non-slip as it slowly wears down. By the way, it should also, ideally, last for 80 years. There are details and there are details.
There is something complex and theatrical about Southwark station, designed by Sir Richard MacCormac of MJP Architects. As you make your way from the platform, you are met with an illuminated glass prow, that feels as if it should be in an art deco hotel foyer, but that highlights the move upwards towards the foot of the escalators. Usually escalators are very gregarious creatures and come in groups, but here, each marked by a dark boxed portal, they stand alone. There is a reason for this. They are carefully threaded through the columns of the massive Victorian brick railway viaduct that carries the mainline trains metres above our heads.
As you are transported up — look ahead! Opening up in front of you is a great blossoming of blue. The entire opposing wall of this sweeping intermediate space is dominated by a prism of 630 specially designed glass panels held on stainless steel 'spiders'. One of the few artworks on the JLE, it is by artist Alexander Beleschenko. The inspiration for this is drawn, suitably theatrically, from the 1815 stage set for Mozart’s The Magic Flute designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. So, is this your moment to stand amongst the stars as the Queen of the Night does in the opera?
We are still drawn up towards the street by escalators, passing through a ticket hall reminiscent of Arnos Grove station of 1932. The design won four prestigious architectural and engineering awards – so, I still roll my eyes every time I use it as, for some reason, we chose to put a litter bin immediately below the awards plaques. Not just roll my eyes but feel the cold hand of Frank Pick, the legendary Underground boss in pre-war years, and whose comments on such detail I can only begin to imagine.
Already under threat
There's much more to the Jubilee extension, of course. I could also have discussed Westminster station, a site that I saw through from site acquisition to public opening. Or perhaps Stratford Market Depot, one of the finest buildings of all on the line and a rare pleasure if you ever get the chance to visit.
Space does not allow. Instead, we should end with a warning.
Several of the architectural masterpieces we have seen in this article are under threat of alteration or redevelopment, while the thorny issue of the Listing of such iconic modern buildings is complex and fraught. In 2017, TfL considered plans to construct an 'air rights' building above Southwark station that would have been, unlike the intended development, highly destructive of many of the surface elements of the station. Several amenity societies, including SAVE Britain's Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, formally opposed the scheme and the station was, unsuccessfully, considered for Listing despite its relative youth. Such was the outcry that TfL eventually pulled back and has since developed an alternative design that, as the original plans allowed for, will not compromise the existing station.
Equally destructive plans for redevelopment at North Greenwich will likewise see the dismantling of Foster's wonderful bus station and here, the scheme arguably makes transport interchange worse, which given today's need to enhance modal shift and encourage the use of public transport seems a strange thing to even consider.
Overall, this also raises the issue of sustainability: should we be demolishing such modern buildings, still fit for purpose and doing the job they were admirably designed to do, and doing it well? Certainly, evolution and adaptation are vital and, indeed, several of these stations were designed to have buildings constructed over them. But it is important too, I think, to understand the considered architecture and special nature of such buildings and design any intervention, large or small, with thought and care.
So, for the price of a ticket, go and have a look at these stations yourselves and see what you make of them, perhaps pondering the simple complexities of designing a tube station! After all, I may have let slip a few trade secrets...
Mike Ashworth, now retired, was a long-serving design and heritage manager for London Underground and Transport for London.