Arts: The right change for the Tube?

How do you modernise a modern classic? By arguing heatedly about every detail, as Charles Darwent reports
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In March 1933, Edward, Prince of Wales, realised the dream of every tyro princeling and drove his very own train along the newly extended tube line from Piccadilly Circus to Wood Green. What the future Duke of Windsor made of the new line is not recorded. The reaction of the Royal Institute of British Architects, however, is: "That the directors of the Underground Railway should have so correlated every part of their organisation that everything from a poster or a doorknob to a complete station should so clearly express 'Underground' is an achievement of which they have good reason to be proud," purred the RIBA Journal.

Not named in this panegyric, oddly enough, was the architect of this extraordinary work - the greatest piece of systematic building undertaken in the capital this century, and one that came to express not just "Underground" but "London". Charles Holden was the designer of both of the stations used by the prince - indeed, of all the stations on the new line - although it was that heroic Thirties figure, the Common Man, who had been in his mind as he sat at the drawing board.

Dushkin pandered to the proletariat's hunger for glamour on his Moscow metro system. Holden - under the benign 20-year dictatorship of the Underground's managing director, Frank Pick - appealed instead to its mind. With stations like Arnos Grove in north London and Tooting Bec in the south, Holden - freshly returned from a Bauhaus Grand Tour of Europe - created a string of Rationalist structures that were to sprout from London's dowdy Victorian topsoil like the first green shoots of British Modernism.

For all his visual repertoire of Gropius-like concrete canopies and steel-framed windows, Holden's buildings were also something of a philosophical cheat: their stairwells clad in Travertine marble, their bricks hand-made, uplighters cast in bronze, facades covered in Portland stone and their walls load-bearing. This material ambiguity highlights an intellectual problem that Holden's inheritors at London Underground have had to cope with ever since, and not just in relation to the Master's buildings.

On the one hand, a station like Arnos Grove is both an arguably beautiful structure and an inarguably precious artefact of British Modernism. On the other, it is a tube station: a machine whose real logic is the processing of passengers, and one that thus has a duty both to express and to adapt to developments in the technology it serves. Its creator's own views on this paradox were unhelpfully paradoxical: "Ruthlessly analyse your motives, eliminate everything that does not fulfil a definite and necessary function," wrote an unsentimental Holden with one hand, signing orders for more Travertine with the other.

"Holden certainly didn't regard his buildings as pure boxes," argues Christopher Nell, environments manager at London Underground and the man charged with looking after the fabric of Arnos Grove and the 45 other tube stations (28 of them by Holden) newly listed by English Heritage. "He expected them to be pulled about, to have shops added to them, even for them to be built over." "Of course they have to be preserved," retorts Elain Harwood, in charge of postwar listings at English Heritage. "Details like flooring and tiling and signage have to be kept, or renewed in keeping with what is there: the things you'd take for granted if they were yours."

The apparently irreconcilable views of London Underground and English Heritage led, last month, to a jointly organised seminar, intended to produce some kind of working logic. Not before time: the relationship between LU and EH has been a combative one for the best part of 30 years, and it shows. "There was a definite enough-of-that-aesthetic-nonsense- we-have-a-railway-to-run attitude at London Underground from the Sixties on," says Paul Velluet, English Heritage's head regional architect for central London. "I think the real reason English Heritage started listing stations at all was because they thought it was the only way of stopping us damaging them," according to Nell.

If - and, given the apparently disposable aesthetic that shaped much of its architecture, it is a big if - you agree that preservation is what the Underground needs, then there was a degree of justification for this view. The schizoid spirit of Charles Holden may still have stalked London Transport's St James's Park headquarters during the Seventies and Eighties, but it was its rationalist rather that its sentimental side that seemed to have survived the grave. One notably typical eyesore of the period - as far as English Heritage is concerned at least - is the concrete box slapped on top of Stanley Heaps's 1937 Warwick Road entrance to Earl's Court station in the late 1960s: "horrid" is Elain Harwood's pungent description. ("It was built as a control room and it still is," retorts an exasperated Nell.)

Arguably rather worse were more recent attempts by London Underground to play the heritage game. Even Nell admits to having "queasy feelings" about the ersatz Victorian ticket hall put up a couple of years ago behind Gloucester Road's genuine Victorian facade, while the theme-park "artificial daylight" [sic] intended to whisk passengers on Baker Street's Circle Line platforms back to the palmy days of 1863 - the year the initial stretch of London's underground railway opened between Farringdon and Baker Street - is little short of emetic. (The reinstallation of genuine fake light would have amused the critic of Building News, who dismissed Baker Street's platform tunnel at its opening as "gloomy [and] catacomb-like".)

Sad, too, are the Travertine panels carefully commissioned by London Underground to replace damaged Holden originals at the most grande luxe of all his stations, Piccadilly Circus. "Terribly expensive," notes Elain Harwood, drily. "The problem is that his panels were laid so that the grain in the marble ran horizontally. Having gone to all that trouble and expense, London Underground laid the new ones vertically."

The recent joint EH/LU seminar, and the policy document published to accompany it, are clearly aimed at avoiding such mistakes in the future. Intended for the individual line managers responsible for listed stations, the paper includes advice on the cleaning of terracotta and faience, and provides horny-handed railwaymen with an entry-level lesson on architectural aesthetics. English Heritage's Paul Velluet suggests that these same line managers are now enthusiastic apostles of conservation and that "the conflict situation that once existed between us over operational questions" has been resolved.

For his part, Christopher Nell has been busy publishing handbooks on things like heritage signing and colour standards. His office recently produced a standard palette for all Underground stations, for example, loosely based on Holden's original primary-colour spectrum. A source of particular pride to Nell is his discovery that the window frames and fenestration bars in Holden stations had not, after all, originally been painted white but blue or green, a fact garnered by writing to the last surviving member of Holden's office. Windows in stations along the Northern and Piccadilly Lines will be repainted accordingly.

Of course, points of discord do still exist. The question of lettering on signage has provoked a particularly nasty bout of in-fighting, most of it to do with Lower Case New Johnston. Old Johnston - that infinitely elegant typeface specially designed for the Underground Group in the Twenties - was replaced by the heavier New Johnston as London Transport's standard lettering in 1986. Now London Underground wants to use non-capitalised letters in signage on listed stations, a move defended on grounds of legibility by Christopher Nell and fought tooth and nail on ones of inappropriateness (there being no lower case in Old Johnston) by English Heritage. "We have always said that on classic listed period stations, there should be a clear presumption to retain Old Johnston," insists Paul Velluet; "English Heritage have conceded on this one," says an optimistic Nell. A clinical psychologist has backed up his case by arguing that lower-case lettering is more legible in public notices.

What would Charles Holden have made of all this? Perhaps the paradox of conserving structures built on purportedly rational grounds would have amused him. And he would surely have felt some sympathy for Christopher Nell and his line managers. Whatever the other reasons for their conversion to the conservationist cause, there has been one entirely rational one: a lack of money Holden himself never had to contend with, which lends an undeniable appeal to the idea of preserving rather than building anew.

"It's interesting to speculate on how Holden would have got on in the present climate," muses Paul Velluet. "What his buildings provided was a unified view: the outer embodiment of a level of service, and of the need for there to be a public perception of that level of service, that has entirely disappeared."

Across London, the Jubilee Line extension is busy taking shape. Each station will be from the hand of a different trophy architect: Norman Foster, Chris Wilkinson, Michael Hopkins et al. If the cohesion of Holden's Underground was a sign of its commitment to public service, what are we to read from this new individualistic aesthetic? Answer that one for yourselves.