Crossrail is a magnificent feat of engineering. But why do all the stations look the same, asks Tim Abrahams
When it began, the Elizabeth Line was the largest infrastructure project in Europe, and as it nears completion, it is clearly a monumental engineering achievement. It seems impossible to consider that, as this extension of Transport for London’s empire readies itself for the first train, just over 100 years ago the capital’s transport network was little more than a disparate collection of private railways and tramways built with shaky loans. The British public were reluctant to embrace not only the new technology of the electrified underground, but also other-worldly contraptions such as petrol-driven buses and electrified trams.
This was the situation that faced the pioneering figures of Frank Pick and Albert Stanley when they joined the Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL) in 1906. And it was a situation that they immediately set about transforming, consolidating the fractured network in both financial and engineering terms. While Stanley began to stitch together an integrated system through ambitious buyouts, Pick gave it a coherent identity. ‘[Pick] was attracted to the idea that moral and civic harmony could be achieved through integrating art and design with everyday life,’ wrote Oliver Green in his 2013 book, Pick’s London. Pick’s tenure working on the Underground, from 1906 to 1940, was a heroic period for the relationship between design, society and transport.
It was a victory of a million details: the bar-and-disc station name-board which was picked up by other line operators; the decrease in advertising space beneath ground, which served to drive up revenue from premium advertisers; the coup in convincing other private lines to join the UERL and market themselves as the Underground; his consistency in employing the best designers and architects. He was, according to cultural historian Michael Saler, ‘romantically inclined yet puritanically driven’.
A century later, Pick’s multifarious acts of design humanity, such as commissioning furniture and fabric designers to make the carriages on certain lines seem less cold, are all too easily dismissed. We think ahistorically, as if the expansion and success of the London Underground was a given. Yet his campaign to convince Londoners on to new and unfamiliar transport networks is a key part of what gives TfL – and by extension London – its character. By giving coherence to the city, when at times there were no political or administrative bodies doing so, it has helped London to hang together, through comfort, character, warmth and a predilection for the characterful over the bland.
The irony is that, while this centralising tendency remains today, it has led to a situation where the individual creativity that Pick believed should make this world comfortable and attractive has been lost.
There can be no doubt that the Elizabeth Line, as Crossrail will soon be known, is an engineering success: a 60-mile line, including 26 miles underground in new tunnels burrowed by eight 1,000 tonne boring machines through some of the most densely populated urban space in the world. The £14.8 billion project has been co-ordinated by the cream of the UK’s engineering talent: individuals who are masters not only in creative engineering but also in the logistics of delivering it. Simon Wright, the current chief executive, is a former director of the pioneering engineering firm Arup; the previous CEO, Andrew Wolstenholme, was programme director of the stunning Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport; the operations director, Howard Smith, led the knitting together of several existing suburban railway lines into the London Overground, a seamless addition to the city’s transport infrastructure.
Yet with initial through-journeys beginning in December, and fit-outs of the stations nearing completion, it is becoming clear that while the Elizabeth Line may be an engineering achievement of the highest order, it may not be an architectural one. Entrances to the new stations have been carefully inserted into the existing streetscape, some great artwork – and some not so great – will enliven the entrances, and the station concourses and tunnels are clean and roomy. As one descends to the platform, however, the stations become more and more uniform. This appears to be quite deliberate. Crossrail Ltd has always stressed the ‘consistency and familiarity’ of the interior architecture. ‘Common design elements appear across all the stations,’ says John McAslan, the architect of Bond Street station.
There are moments of inspiration: the raised walkways at Whitechapel will snake through the pre-existing station and Norman Foster’s station at Canary Wharf revisits, in more modest fashion, the webbed canopy of his nearby Jubilee Line station. The subterranean experience of the Elizabeth Line will be dominated by rows of perforated glass fibre concrete panels, curved to suit any nuances in the geometries of the tunnels at different stations. This very deliberate step towards uniformity – benches, signage and other manner of detailing are all consistent – is not just a cost-saving exercise. It also creates an identity for the line at the expense of the character of individual stations.
Architectural strategies for wayfinding, such as the subtle grading of wall colouring, or the use of natural light to intimate the direction to exit, have been eschewed in favour of signs and station announcements. When you get off at Elizabeth Line stations you will be entering an engineered environment, with all the efficiency and lack of warmth which that implies.
This is part of the evolving design history of the London Underground. The Elizabeth Line has been executed in direct contrast to the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE), completed in 1999, which saw several stunning stations built out on one line. Westminster station by Michael Hopkins Architects – voted by Londoners as one of the Transported by Design campaign’s ten icons of London transport in 2015 – threads escalators down through huge concrete columns and steel cross beams straddling a deep cut beneath the Houses of Parliament. It’s like being amid the foundations of not just the city but the nation. When plans were announced to build a skyscraper on top of the stunning blue-glass-clad upper concourse of Southwark by the late Sir Richard MacCormac in 2017, there was an outcry among architects and critics.
Architects who work on the Elizabeth Line suggest that among transport engineers, the flamboyant designs of the stations for the JLE were viewed with scepticism. They were delivered under the stewardship of the great transport architect Roland Paoletti, rather than a management structure dominated by engineers. Design was blamed for cost over-runs, and so during the early stages of Crossrail the JLE stood as an example of what must not be done. It is unlikely whether the stations on the Elizabeth Line will be taken to Londoners’ hearts as quickly as the JLE stations were, though that was never the intention.
And yet this decision ignores a constant lament from users of underground systems the world over. One of the many lessons that architects and engineers from Moscow took from the London Underground was that every station should look different. Other cities’ metro stations are praised or critiqued on their individual character or lack of it.
Roger Hawkins of Hawkins\Brown, architect of Tottenham Court Road, concurs that the Elizabeth Line is ‘a stunning engineering achievement’. He believes that the relationship between the JLE and Crossrail should be read as part of the wider story of London Underground’s evolving design. ‘Compared to the JLE, the pendulum has perhaps swung too far the other way,’ he says. ‘Although there was a lot of opportunity for design diversity, if you look at the stations, particularly at platform level, they are the same. I think perhaps for [proposed north-south link] Crossrail 2 they might think a bit about how they might use architecture more: both throughout and around the stations.’ It is a shame that the current opportunity to do so was lost.