Eleven stations, as many architects and pounds 3bn - but just a single vision. As London Underground's Jubilee Line Extension nears completion, Charles Darwent meets Roland Paoletti, the man with the masterplan
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IF YOU ARE intent on getting Roland Paoletti's goat, try mentioning the words "Frank Pick". Pick was responsible for commissioning what have, until now, been seen as the finest stations on London's Underground: notably those gems of Thirties rationalism - Arnos Grove, Sudbury Town, Chiswick Park and the rest - designed by the Lancastrian architect, Charles Henry Holden. In his less loquacious moments, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner liked to compare Pick's role as architectural patron with that of the Medicis; in his more expansive, he went for Louis XIV. Paoletti, for his part, has spent the last seven years overseeing the greatest programme of building on the Underground since Pick's death in 1941: the 11 stations - some pounds 43m's worth of architecture at the last count, out of a total spend of pounds 3bn - on the new Jubilee Line Extension. Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn between Pick's work and Paoletti's, and not always to the latter's favour. Conjure up the spectre of Pick, and Paoletti's face - a beautiful one, it must be said, with the impassive gravity of a late Roman senator - will cloud over.

"People keep throwing this Pick thing at me," winces Paoletti, with a flicker of something rather like irritation. "I went out to look at one of those Holden stations once - I don't remember the name now - and I really couldn't see the point. To me it's all just a lot of stripped-down Classicism: little buildings with friezes and cornices and what have you. It's simply the British form of Italian fascism, London Underground doing gently what other people were doing in a ferocious way. That's not what I'm about at all: I'm an engineer, I worked with Pier Luigi Nervi, I love the Victorians, St Pancras." Paoletti winces again. "You know, when I came here from Hong Kong nine years ago, the people from London Underground said to me, `You're going to have to connect back to the tradition of Pick.' I said `Why not ask me to connect back to the tradition of the monasteries? The Underground's architecture is a sacred ruin, and I'm not interested in ruins.'"

Which is why you will find travelling on Paoletti's JLE (when, eventually, you are given the chance to do so) a wildly different experience from riding Pick's Piccadilly Line. Enter the latter's Arnos Grove station and travel the weary miles to Rayner's Lane and you will emerge into a building with much the same ambience as that through which you had descended. Both stations were designed by Charles Holden and both with the same ambitions: namely, a recreation of the Bauhuas aesthetic - functional expression, geometric form, the holy trinity of licht, luft und sonne - in English brick, with a frill of John Soane tacked around the edges. Sameness, uniformity, was the key to Pick's commissioning. On the one hand, they promised to weld the newly-nationalised London Underground into a corporate whole. On the other, they offered the styl- istic suggestion that even the newest and furthest-flung of London's exploding suburbs was still a part of the city.

Paoletti, needless to say, is having none of it. Glide, hypothetically, along the short route from Southwark station to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line and you will get the impression of having changed not just postal codes but planets. The first of these stations was designed by Richard MacCormac, an architect given to playing historicist games of great beauty. Southwark's centrepiece, literal and figurative, is a top-lit, ellipsoidal vault, one wall of which is covered in triangles of pinstriped blue glass: the air is of Piranesi, redone by Buckminster Fuller. The wall reflected in the glass is clad in cut terrazzo which wraps around, a la Brunel, into the tunnels leading down to platform level. Proceed down these, or up the escalators to the ticket hall and you will find yourself firmly in Pickland. Downstairs, MacCormac has installed a pair of elliptical staircases that are straight out of 1935. Upstairs, the circular ticket office with its central, glass-brick passimeter, Hollywood columns and uplit cornices is an almost literal take on Holden's Arnos Vale. One hesitates to point out the resemblance to Paoletti. The JLE's chief architect, ever the proud papa, merely beams, "Richard's always doing that," adding, benignly, "It's just his little way of doing things."

Norman Foster, of course, does not have little ways of doing anything, as his station at Canary Wharf demon- strates. "Everybody keeps saying that it's like a cathedral," snorts Paoletti. "They're wrong. It actually is a cathedral." Hyperbole apart, you can see what he means. Built to process up to 40,000 people an hour at peak times, Canary Wharf is also meant, in Paoletti's phrase, to be "extraordinary". "It's both the busiest and biggest of the new stations and I wanted it to make the statement, not just about the JLE but about London," says Paoletii. "I see it as being like the Sydney Opera House, a building that changed the world's perception of an entire country from people who wore corks in their hats to people with sophistication."

It is difficult to imagine what image of the British you might derive from Foster's 245-metre behemoth, other than of a people with a bizarre predilection for travelling underground. Entry to Canary Wharf station is via a series of aluminium cowls, steroidal versions of the cute fosteritos that form the openings to Bilbao's new metro system. In fact, the overwhelming sense of Canary Wharf is its bigness. It looms with terribilita: a vast, concrete structure supported by just seven insufficient-looking pillars. It is, if you like, Rome to MacCormac's Greece. Any discrepancies between the two are entirely intentional. "If you're going to break away from a building form that has become locked in convention, then it is better to do it in 11 different ways," reasons Paoletti. "I like to see the JLE's architecture as a tune, as a piece of jazz. It's lyrical, nothing to do with wilfulness or childishness."

Well, maybe. In fact, it is difficult not to see Paoletti's anti-Pickness, his virulent distaste for corporatism, as having roots in his childhood. The son of Italian immigrants - "I was born on St George's Day in the City of London," laughs Paoletti. "How English does that make me?" - the war came as something of a personal trauma. With his parents viewed as enemy aliens, the young Paoletti was shipped off to a Jesuit boarding school in Ireland for six years: his accent is still a round Curragh burr, and he justifies his authority as an architect via the Jesuitical rule of auctoritas. For all of this he had to thank Benito Mussolini, whose taste for corporatism, neo-Classical architecture and making trains run on time would seem to have placed him in an unholy alliance (in Roland Paoletti's mind, at least) with poor Frank Pick.

Whether or not this reading is correct, the fact remains that Paoletti got his way over the Jubilee Line Extension. Only a churl would deny the magnificence of some of its buildings, notably of MacCormac's Southwark station and of Chris Wilkinson's massively glamorous Stratford service depot. Nor is there any denying the high-mindedness of Paoletti's motives. He describes Wilkinson's depot as having serio, an Italian word Paoletti renders as "the ability to say serious things to serious people". "People have said to me, `Why should a train shed be beautiful?'" remarks Paoletti. "`It's only going to be seen by mechanics, people washing trains.' The point is that buildings don't just have to be serviceable. They have to be educative."

More importantly, perhaps, the JLE's stations also break the old London Underground tradition of treating architecture and engineering as irredeemably separate disciplines. Holden may have designed pretty ticket halls, but it is only at Gant's Hill that he got the chance to work underground. Otherwise, his architecture stopped at the top of the escalators, the tunnels and platforms of Pick's system being designed by London Transport's civil engineers: the reason, purportedly, for their Stygian horrors. Paoletti was insistent from the start that this was not going to happen on his line. Consequently, not only are passengers wafted all the way from station entrance to train door in the glamorous embrace of Norman Foster or Michael Hopkins, but a particular kind of design - driven by what Paoletti calls "a symbiosis of architecture and engineering" - prevails throughout.

Hopkins' Westminster station, dogged by structural difficulties, is a case in point. "When we first spoke to the engineers, they said, `You'll have to have floors to keep the walls apart'," recalls Paoletti. "So we said, very, very patiently, `But we want it all to be on one level: isn't there some other way of keeping the walls apart?' The engineers thought about that for a bit and then said, `Well, you could do it with horrible great struts and things,' and that is what you've now got at Westminster: fantastic supporting structures, an engineering that expresses itself as architecture: an engineering in which people can delight."

More than this, Paoletti insists that his expressive engineering gives the designs of the JLE stations a uniformity of voice. Not, perish the thought, uniformity of a Pick-ish, corporatist kind, but what Paoletti calls "a philosophical uniformity: all the stations bring light down from above, for example. There's no Post-Modernism in them, no deconstructing." The stations also respond to their various local environments, in terms as much of what isn't there as of what is. The drama of MacCormac's Southwark, says Paoletti, nods towards the nearby South Bank complex, Old Vic and new Tate Gallery. By contrast, the vast glass drum of Ron Herron's Canada Water station is intended as a response to the area's bleakness. It is, says Paoletti, "a big, splendid beacon that has transformed the area from a wasteland almost overnight".

Be all this as it may, there are still those who doubt the wisdom of the JLE's architecture. One common cavil has been at the expense of it all, although Paoletti points out that the same cut-and-cover, box-station design that has allowed each of his architects a free hand with their various structures also saved London Underground millions in tunnelling costs. "In any case," sniffs the JLE's chief architect, "you have to decide at the beginning whether you're going to see an underground station as a kind of vehicular underpass that happens to have people in it, or whether it's a building; a building with some other kind of job to do, like making people comfortable."

Another oddness of the JLE scheme is the fact that there are some surprising omissions from Paoletti's list of chosen architects, notably that of Nicholas Grimshaw, architect of Waterloo's Eurostar terminal. Grimshaw's sin, apparently, was to take a Pickish line over the question of the JLE's architectural uniformity and demand to be given five stations or nothing. In the event, he got the latter.

How different it might have been had Grimshaw had his way. Paoletti's Jubilee Line stations are, by and large, extraordinary things, arguably as expressive of their age as Pick's were of his. The story they hint at, though, is not one of civic cohesion so much as of internal competition, perhaps even of division. In some way they seem to preach the Thatcherite creed that there is no such thing as society, only societies. Paoletti tells of walking past Canada Water station - the object of huge vandalism before its opening - and hearing one urchin saying proudly to another, "See that? That's the best fucking station in London, that is." Whether local partisanship or individual drama are what London Underground's architecture should be about, though, is a moot point. You doubt, somehow, that citizens of any Parisian arrondisement or Bilbaoan barrio ever claimed their particular Guimard metro or Foster fosterito as the best in their city. Yet both of those things have become part of a cohesive urban fabric, of those cities' image of themselves.