Architecture: Transports of design over and underground

Within weeks Londoners should be riding the Jubilee Line Extension. One man had the job of co-ordinating the design of its striking new stations, and meeting the needs of travellers and local people.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN PETER Mandelson presented Roland Paoletti with the Best Client of the Year award at the Royal Institute of Architects last year, he quipped: "I hope to be collecting this award myself next year." Well the "Dome Secretary" has gone, but Roland Paoletti is still here, overseeing the 11 designer underground stations that he commissioned for the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) against considerable odds.

In November he hopes to be out of a job - one that began seven years ago when he was brought from Hong Kong to set up the JLE in-house team of architects and designers. November is when all his stations should be complete and the new 16km Tube should be up and running - but that is up to the civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, not the architects.

The problem for them, as Paoletti reminded me, is that the new line is an extension of the existing Underground. Old rolling stock restricts designs. If platforms are narrow, that's because the tunnel is narrow. If the network were to be constructed today, tunnels would be made much wider to carry bigger trains and more people. A new signalling system - to carry 24 trains an hour rather than the current fixed-point method that allows 17 - must be activated, but Westinghouse has hit trouble installing it. The need for a faster flow of trains has turned the JLE into a contentious political issue, as well as an engineering one.

Paoletti hand-picked the architects for the 11 stations in this pounds 43m project, that he calls "a symbiosis of architecture and engineering". He'd read architecture at Manchester University at the same time as Norman Foster, and yes, he did sign him up to deliver the Canary Wharf station, but other architects - Ian Ritchie, Chris Wilkinson, Will Alsop, even Richard MacCormac of MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard - have made their reputations for their stations.

One essential element Paoletti insisted on, despite delays and expense, was organising station tunnels so passengers travel directly on just two levels to their platforms, rather than zigzagging miserably up and down corridor routes.

The first to open last month was Stratford's steel ribbed glass concourse by Chris Wilkinson, then Will Alsop's cavernous cathedral station at North Greenwich. Norman Foster's Canary Wharf will open in in late summer - it will be the busiest station used by up to 40,000 people in the rush hour - as will Canada Water (a posthumous work by Ron Heron), Bermondsey (Ian Ritchie) and Waterloo (Paoletti's team).

London Bridge (Weston Williamson), but Southwark (MacCormac, Jamieson and Prich- ard) will take longer for technical reasons. London Bridge has electrical engineering problems; Southwark is the most beautiful of all, with daylight beamed down 17m and refracted within by a vast blue glass wall by Alex Beleschenko, but it's had various difficulties.

The contractors initially rejected all 600 glass triangles for the glass wall claiming that they would not pass the fire test. When it was proved they would - they had not applied the right procedures to test it - the wall went up and the Royal Ballet wanted to put on a ballet there. But by then the viaduct's Victorian extension was leaking water, delaying the installation of the final two escalators linking the four platforms to Rail Track. So the contractors cancelled the ballet performance.

No wonder Roland Paoletti chose architects for their understanding of engineering, though it wasn't technical considerations alone that made him do that, rather that "form comes from understanding engineering fundamentals".

But sometimes the learning curve has been difficult for both architects and engineers. "Architects poking their noses into tunnels can offend engineers - there are conventions in the tunnelling business," he admits, "And layout, for architects the most important planning of the space, is done by the lowest of the low in the pecking order of mechanical and structural, and electrical engineers."

Take Alsop's platform at North Greenwich, hanging in space. The long gallery suspended in space is as simple as cutting away the floors on either side to expose an Indiana Jones walkway - but only if you have done your calculations.

The impact upon the lives of residents as well as commuters is another concern of Paoletti's. It his passionate belief that only by new travel routes into decaying areas will the life of their residents improve and business follow. "Look at Canary Wharf," he points out. The realisation of those stations along the line demands the coordinated activities of many teams in politics, planning, design, finance and construction, and the result affects the entire community. In his heightened social awareness, Roland Paoletti is an old fashioned modernist. His desire to make life better for the commuters, as well as the people who live there, is compelling.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the new bus station by Eva Jiricna adjoining Canada Water, the first on the new line to fall in the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) area. Jiricna's elegant design for a bus shelter, with two great pterodactyl wings of steel and glass falling from a central spine supported gracefully on five columns, is a masterpiece of engineering.

Her bridge for maintenance access, skewed crazily on the top, slews away from the great glass drum that is Ron Heron's design for the Canada Water underground station. Bus shelters have never been given the designer treatment lavished on phone boxes, despite the fact that over three million Londoners take the bus daily.

The locals initially took against both bus and tube stations. They peppered it with air guns and set up vociferous committees. This transport interface had to act as an interface in more ways than the team anticipated. On one side there is expense-account living in twee turretted homesteads by the marina built by LDDC. On the other there are two lonely tower blocks of council housing. Only by dealing with their fears that the area would change, and by giving the residents a beautiful building and laying on coaches from the bus station to take residents from the tower blocks to shop, did Roland Paoletti persuade them that it would work. Now the station has opened, the residents are rightly proud of it.