Archive

Architecture

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

Give my regards to a broad 'StreetGrowing up, I thought Great Portland Street was one of the most famous places in London. This was due solely to its frequent mentions on Just a Minute on Radio 4, as the place from which Kenneth Williams would feverishly wail he had come – often against his supposed better judgement – to be on the show.

Sitting in my bedroom in the East Midlands, I concluded this was clearly one of the most illustrious abodes in the capital, by virtue of being worthy not just of the tenancy of people like Kenny, but of such repeated namechecks on (what is still) the best panel game in Britain.

Years later I realised the calculated comedy and self-deprecation behind those repeated cries of “I didn’t come all the way from Great Portland Street for this! It’s a disgrace!” For one thing, the area is barely 15 minutes’ walk from the location of the old Paris studios where Just a Minute was recorded: hardly a voyage of Jules Verne-esque stature. And second, it is assuredly not an world-famous, celebrity-rich, tourist-attracting hotspot. The most cosmopolitan touch is a sign to a public toilet with the word MEN reproduced in four languages.

What it does have, however, is an Underground station of which even the purposefully-snobbish Kenneth Williams might have approved:

Carry on behindThe platforms have a bewitching grubbiness* that they share with next-door neighbour Baker Street. Both stations are fine examples of how to evoke heritage thoughtfully, not clumsily. No unsubtle dollops of Victoriana here.

Admittedly the enormous brick-lined tunnel does much of the job single-handedly. It’s impossible not to be awed by its vast, smooth curve arching above your head, created from thousands and thousands of bricks, smeared not with a few blobs of artlessly added designer-grime, but with 150 years of history.

The alcoves have been reasonably well-preserved, albeit blessed with not quite the same seductively noir lighting as at Baker Street. In fact, the whole interior is brighter than its cousin, thanks to a stab of daylight at the western end of the platforms:

Brighter, laterI’m guessing that’s the Marylebone Road, though I’ve never been able to find the corresponding gap above ground to allow me a peek downwards.

For all its charm, Great Portland Street is not without flaws – much like its most famous advocate. The station suffered terribly at the hands of Metronet, the company briefly in charge of the infrastructure of nine of the Underground’s lines during the last decade.

Metronet’s policy of cheap but ugly concealment rather than costly but beautiful restoration left chunks of Great Portland Street shrouded in plastic. There’s nothing wrong with plastic, of course – except when it shouldn’t be there:

The better endIts five years since Metronet’s expensive and predictable collapse, when the upkeep of this line (and, since 2010, every Underground line) passed back into public ownership.

I do hope Transport for London one day gets round to righting the wrongs its unmourned erstwhile cohort perpetrated.

I didn’t come all the way to Great Portland Street for this!

*Just like the best of the Carry On films, naturally

Place of worshipFor around 1,000 years, Christianity had a monopoly on big buildings full of silence and high windows. Then the 20th century happened, and the London Underground decided it wanted a helping of the same architectural brew.

The Piccadilly line serves out portions of stuff at intervals a damn sight more frequent than Sunday communion. One of the most intoxicating can be found at Northfields, in the guise of a building that is more like a secular cathedral than a ticket hall.

High windowsWhat is it about this place that makes it not merely attractive, but mesmerising? A clue is in the design of the acoustics. Sound ascends upwards, giving the environment even more of a hallowed feel. Even if you did try to speak loudly, it would carry only a short distance.

This has a very palpable calming effect, evident both in yourself and in the body language of those around you. Just as it’s socially unacceptable to run through a public library, so you wouldn’t, mustn’t, leg it through Northfields ticket hall. A brisk walk is at the limit of what is permissible. There aren’t any notices proclaiming as much; you just know it to be so. The building is its own watchman. Look, even the telephones have vanished:

Cut off - permanentlyThe rejuvenating, unhurried atmosphere of Northfields makes it a brother in spirit of Turnpike Lane. You won’t be surprised to hear they were both designed by the same man (yes, him again).

The exterior is compelling in a different way: more commanding than consoling, and nowhere near as intimidating, crumbling or trussed-up as your traditional place of worship:

The North' Ship Outside, a bright, sharp statement of modernism, bristling with charm and immediacy.

Inside, a cooled, dimmed sanctuary between where you’ve been and what’s to come.

Cue Philip Larkin:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

Stand in silence