Zone 4

Going Beck to the rootsStuck behind a filthy piece of perspex, its colours sapped by years of direct sunlight, the edges frayed, the lettering fading, mounted in such a way as to defy a decent photograph, and shoved in a nook of a platform where hardly anyone stands, is the world’s most recognisable, widely-distributed and influential piece of public art.

Pedants will say it isn’t a map, it’s a diagram; different pedants will say it isn’t even a diagram, it’s a schematic; conciliators will refer to it a topological hybrid; the rest of us are happy to make do with calling it one of the greatest designs of the 20th century.

Pop artIt deserves better treatment than the kind meted out at Finchley Central. And for the most part, Harry Beck’s map usually gets it. Go to the London Transport Museum, or look through any of the dozens of histories of the Underground, to see its story told in glorious, vivid detail. Pick up any map of the Underground produced since 1933 for more evidence, both of how to evolve and enhance Beck’s work constructively, and how to try and wreck it. Luckily the latter never succeeds, at least not for long.

Beck spent a period of his life living in Finchley, coincidentally just round the corner from where I am sitting typing these words. His nearest station was West Finchley, but for some reason Finchley Central is the place that plays host both to this besmirched copy of his masterpiece, and also to a rather tersely-worded plaque:

Plaque-ing a certain somethingI’ve passed through the station roughly twice a day for the last six years. I can’t recall ever seeing someone admiring either the map or the plaque. This is a shame, but I’m not going to hold it against the entire rest of the world (that particular list is quite long enough already).

Besides, the rest of the world – or at least most of it – now conceives of London only in the way Harry Beck reordered it, and that is tribute enough. Thousands of people can draw the Underground map from memory, correctly naming every station. Millions of people shut their eyes at night to find an imprint of the map filed somewhere in their subconscious. And billions of people know of the map and its beguiling symmetry, its soothing rationality, its universal hues.

Theorists will say it commodifies London. Publicists will say it sells London. I say it is London – and always will be.

Mapping the universe

Good Manor(s)There’s a bit of sibling rivalry up the western end of the Piccadilly line. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as a “who’s biggest” competition, even though I’ve just done so. But there’s definitely some pseudo-grandstanding going on. It’s quite possibly pseudist as well, for when you’ve not one but two tumescences prodding the sky a few streets apart in the same London borough, it’s tape measures at dawn.

I can’t find details of just how tall the tower at Boston Manor stands in comparison to its brother down the road at Osterley. Judging purely by photos, Osterley edges it. But that’s largely because of the pole that sits on top of the spike that sits on top of the tower. It’s absolutely shameless. Though if you’re going for elevation as well as style, there’s no point in going off half-cock.

Boston stumpBoth stations were designed by Stanley Heaps from briefings by Charles Holden.

How fortuitous for a lazy blogger that two of the greatest architects to have worked on the Underground had such pun-friendly surnames. But you won’t find me beholden to heaping such linguistic fancies into what is already an over-ripe textual stew. Their efforts, as always, speak for themselves – or rather, sing for themselves, because Boston Manor is what happens when buildings croon.

The music you can hear is that of the 1930s: of soft, sad ballads; of frantic shape-throwing and frugging; of get-us-away-from-here toe-tappers; and of stoical, cheek-to-cheek farewells.

Boston Manor at night was used for one of the images for the Royal Mail’s set of commemorative stamps marking the Underground’s 150th anniversary. It was a superb choice, but not just for the station’s enchanting design and sophisticated character. This is architecture that radiates a mood as well as a movement; one of weary arrivals, of buoyant departures, of lonely vigils and late-night thoughts.

And yes, it does all those things even in brilliant sunshine.

Anyone up for a tea party?

That's the story of, that's the glory of love

Tuppence a bagHere’s one of the smallest things to make it into the 150, but one of the sweetest. It’s on the westbound platform at East Ham, high up near the canopy, perpendicular to the tracks.

A cultural historian would be able to take a good guess at its age, likewise a scholar of advertising typography. Just when was tea tuppence a bag (tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag*)? Not since the war, certainly. There’s been a station at East Ham since 1858, though the ticket hall is Edwardian. My guess is the sign hails from sometime between 1902, when the District line first came this way, and 1936, when the Metropolitan arrived. It was painted to promote an adjoining cafe, long since vanished – as has this kind of gorgeous lettering, tea shops in general, and the notion that putting “d” after a number is not a reference to a boy band.

Something that can be more accurately dated is the LTSR ironwork to the left of the sign. That’s the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, by whom the station was built in the 1850s. Back then the idea of buying tea from a person on a platform would have been morally scandalous. One had it served to one, thank you very much, and you’ll mind your manners for saying so.

Pillar of wisdom*Possibly the saddest song about London ever written