Review: The New Routemasters 20.02.09

words William Wiles

A new bus for London! In fact, a surfeit of new buses. Ken Livingstone’s fleet of wretchedly unpopular bendy buses has been around for less than seven years. Now Boris Johnson’s competition to design an heir to the Routemaster, the beloved double-decker scrapped by Ken in 2005, has yielded two winners, and an eccentric convoy of runners-up. Smashing the bendies was Johnson’s only memorable campaign promise, and whatever you might think of the Tory mayor, it’s hard to remember the last time a design contest enjoyed this kind of political weight. It’s even more difficult to recall the last time right-wing ideology was blended with a love for buses.

Johnson presented the Routemaster – and his proposed 21st-century replacement – as a freewheeling chariot of libertarianism, not the trundling resort of failure, mainly thanks to its hop-on, hop-off open back. “We can think for ourselves and don’t need to be told when it is safe to get on and off,” he scoffed back in 2007. “Bendy buses are miserable, inhuman and socialistic and should all be pensioned off to a Scandinavian airport.”

That last sentence was a revealing omnibus of prejudices and clues as to what would constitute an ideologically acceptable design. You can forget about efficient Nordic modernism, chaps. And, crucially, the Routemaster was “human”.

The winning entries have taken these pointers quite literally – the designs are rife with cuddly, friendly, smiley anthropomorphism. And several entrants have tried to work in “London” iconography, as if designing a city mascot with a secondary transport function. It’s cute for an entrant in the under-11s category to make the wheels look like the London Eye. When it comes to adult professional designers, such whimsy is distressing. Héctor Serrano, Miñarro García and Javier Esteban’s otherwise sensible runner-up has Union Jack hubcaps. The Foster & Partners/Aston Martin design, the joint winner, boasts of a “bowler hat” profile – a reference so anachronistic it even fails as a visual cliche.

image The Capoco design

Despite its resemblance to Fred, the Homepride mascot, the Foster/Aston Martin design is the superior of the two winners. The other, developed by bus design company Capoco, is a bulbous Mekon-browed retread with a charm bypass and the sleek lines of a bouncy castle. At best “retro” now, in 20 years it will be positively embarrassing. Foster’s bus, at least, is not an obvious clone. Its semi-circular front and rear ends give it the feel of the city’s pre-1950 trams, but it is unmistakeably modern. The Routefoster could make its own niche in the public’s affections. The Capoco effort simply basks in the Routemaster’s reflected glow.

Sadly, the Capoco design has the whiff of inevitability (the firm told Johnson it could have a design ready in three months back in 2007), and Foster’s entry looks like a bone to gratify the polo-necks until the prototype Bulgemaster rolls predictably out of the garage in 2011. That would be a shame. In scrapping a brand-new fleet on the basis of little more than sentiment, the mayor’s office is already on an almighty binge with the city’s funds. It would be a pity if Johnson were to flinch in his profligate radicalism at the last moment and opt for the more timid design.

A New Bus For London is at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, from 14 February to 29 March

top image The Foster/ Aston Martin design

www.ltmuseum.co.uk

image Héctor Serrano, Miñarro García and Javier Esteban’s otherwise sensible runner-up has Union Jack hubcaps

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