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Numbers 76-100

Hues of the worldI appreciate the interlacing tarmac tendrils of Hanger Lane might not get everyone gyrating with pleasure.

The road network has been branded the scariest of its kind in the country, though I’m not sure something that pre-advertises its risks in such public and self-evident a fashion can be properly blamed for giving you the willies. (Daunting is probably a better label.) There’s a noisy concentration of movement going on, but you can’t say you’re not warned. The grumble and velocity of traffic are palpable thousands of metres before you reach the junction itself.

And then right in the middle of this tombola of motorisation sits an Underground station.

It looks at first sight, from a distance, utterly inaccessible and unloved.

But you should press onwards and nearer, towards the heart of the melee, for you’ll be directed down one of a number of subways, along the walls of which you’ll find a string of pre-gyratory pin-ups.

Like this:

Brightest LondonRepresentations of the Underground have shaped our perception of the network far more than actual journeys on actual trains. Shapes, symbols and colours have educated and enlightened the country, if not the whole world, since the early 1900s. Most people will never see, let alone ride on, an Underground train. But most people know of the sensation. They know the palette, the aesthetic geography. They know how it must feel.

And we have posters to thank for that. Posters that are rightly being commemorated in this 150th anniversary year just as much as the infrastructure.

I think some of them number among the greatest works of art of the 20th century, but then you knew I’d say that. You can see and judge for yourself at Hanger Lane station, where a selection of them stud the underpasses in the form of sensibly wipe-clean tile-based reproductions.

Go, West(ern Extension)!They’re all labelled, giving the artist their proper credit along with the year of publication. And they’re not just the most well-known ones. You’ll find less ubiquitous efforts, like “Autumn Hues” (at the top of this blog), which seems to be promoting easy access to poisonous fungi and “decay”, albeit tastefully drawn.

And befitting the location, there’s a nod to other, cruder modes of transport:

Life and how to live itFrom a purely selfish point of view, this display allows the likes of me to photograph and reproduce material I suspect TfL and/or the London Transport Museum guards with a roundel-shaped branding iron.

From a more selfless point of view, it’s wonderful that these colourful splashes of heritage continue to have a place in the present, available to all to see, touch and explore: history’s hangers-on at Hanger Lane.

Acton artIf there’s one theme above all else that’s come to define this blog, it’s light. The way it bounces through, curves round, dives deep and sidles into the Underground’s heart. The lengths some architects and engineers have gone to coax it into places far from the open air. The magical results achieved by manipulating its power and magnifying its potential.

Light runs counter to almost every association prompted by the word “Underground”. Yet it is responsible for some of the greatest sensations you can experience on the network, both deliberate and by chance. The ticket hall at West Acton would look impressive even without direct sunlight nudging through its neatly-aligned panes. But catch it when the rays are in just the right position, and the effect is glorious – both inside and out:

Go, WestThe elevated windows allow light to pass through in either direction, including on to the platforms which sit behind and below the hall. It’s a simple trick, but with profound consequences: it gives passengers waiting for or getting off trains the added bonus of being bathed in sunshine that might otherwise be obscured by buildings. And if there’s one thing you don’t want on a platform at an Underground station that’s above ground, it’s gloom.

We’ve the Great Western Railway to thank for this, and everything else to be cherished about West Acton, including its eccentric crook-shaped wooden benches and enamel signage. Brian Lewis designed its current incarnation, completed in 1940: a (literal) beacon of light in those dark days.

It’s now Grade II-listed. The inside of the ticket hall isn’t in quite as fine a state as its gleaming exterior. But a slice of sunlight sometimes adds soul to even the shabbiest of rooms.

Goodness, What Radiance!

The power of 'EalingI’ve gone on before about how, just because something is old, doesn’t mean it automatically has value. There’s no point preserving absolutely everything just for the sake of it. It’s not practical, for one thing. What earthly use would be Underground stations done up to operate like they did in the past, but expected to cope with the volume of passengers in the present?

A lot of what was truly old on the Underground was truly awful, and thank heavens it no longer exists. Traces linger in picture form, and that’s where they belong, as warnings from history.

The old roundels at Ealing Broadway are different, though. They’re quite clearly not right, in the sense of not resembling what they would in short order be superseded with. But it’s right they exist, as they’re a reminder of how art and design can evolve for the better. They’re waymarkers on a journey that ends in splendour.

Mark Ovenden dates these as belonging to the first half of the 1910s, a few years before Edward Johnston developed the typeface that led to the present-day roundel being registered as a trademark in 1917.

Two can be found on the District line platforms at Ealing Broadway, and are easy to locate and photograph. Even earlier examples are tucked away in corners of Covent Garden and Caledonian Road.

They’re all a bit ungainly, ill-formed and trying to be grown up: the Underground in adolescence. But they capture a thought process working itself out in the public gaze – one that deserves to be preserved within a 21st century Underground network that continues to work itself out in (almost always) constructive, creative ways.

These roundels are worth keeping for the inspiration they continue to provide today, here, right now. For they aren’t aesthetic dead ends. They’re fascinating stumbles towards genius.

Forget 1940. Rejoice in the Broadway melody of 1915!

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