Zone 2

Wings over exoticaWhen searching online for solid information on Harold Stabler to inject into my otherwise flabby tribute to his efforts at Aldgate East, I’d learned that he hadn’t confined his creations just to one station. More of his ceramic whimsy could be found on the Jubilee line, at both St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage.

At the time I presumed it was merely more of the same. As charming as Stabler’s tiles are, I didn’t think it worth bothering with a trip to see an identical batch in simply a different location. I’d had my fill of vexing heraldry and monstrous apparitions – or more accurately, monstrous heraldry and vexing apparitions.

Well, not for the first time on this blog, my presumption has now given way to contrition. For there is an entirely fresh selection of tiles on the Jubilee line, just as delightful and possibly more intriguing than their cousins over in the East End.

Good lordWho, I wondered, was Thomas Lord? Being a poor sportsman, and an even poorer lateral thinker, it wasn’t until I did more online searching that I discovered his local significance. I’m sure you can make the connection faster than me. Suffice to say I was, ahem, bowled over by my own ignorance.

The five birds pictured at the top of this post remain more of a mystery – as does this further quintet:

Quintet of queensThey look like representations of a young monarch, perhaps hailing from the Plantagenet dynasty. Another local connection, perhaps? Did Henry II once strike camp at what is now the Central School of Speech and Drama?

Tile away the hoursAt both St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage you can find a few duplicates of the tiles at Aldgate East; the Underground roundel, for instance, and the relief of the headquarters at 55 Broadway.

But these are the exceptions. Stabler treats you to a largely new and, for me, wholly unexpected spread of caricatures and motifs. The way they are laced along the platforms positively encourages you to wander up and down while waiting for your train, rather than observe the convention and remain sullenly rooted to a spot. This might not be very practical at rush hour. At all other times it’s a positive boon.

These are palaces of curiosity. Their walls turn the mundane into the magical. And their wares are as delicate as crystal.

Palace of glittering delights

This-a-wayI’ve been a bit sniffy on this blog about the Underground stations designed by Leslie Green.

They’re the ones with the dark red exteriors made up of hundreds of glazed terracotta blocks. There are dozens of them around the city, and you’re bound to encounter a few of them on even the most fleeting of visits to London. Which is precisely why I have a bit of a problem with Green. To sum up what I’ve discussed before, if you’ve seen one of them, you don’t really need to bother with any others. The differences are superficial rather than significant, prompted by expediency rather than imagination.

Sometimes, however, a variety of riches can be found inside one of Green’s otherwise character-less creations.

Holloway Road has a good collection of his signature work for the interior of an Underground station. Both platforms were given a long-overdue refurbishment in the late noughties, which certainly benefited the tiling. Green’s trademark ‘Way Out’ and ‘No Exit’ designs for the walls of the platforms look in a pretty good state, considering they were first put up in 1906:

Well, obviouslyBut for once, a Leslie Green station is more than the sum of its predictable, rudimentary parts.

As well as those familiar mock signs (based on his design for the ticket windows in the booking hall), Green sprinkles Holloway Road with a bit of glamour: more Cricklewood than Hollywood, as Ernie Wise would say, but still rather beguiling.

There are very swish ‘To The Trains’ signs in the little passageways between the adjacent platforms:

To the trains!And there’s a much larger treat in the shape of the track-side wall of both platforms, which have been left completely free of advertising.

The effect is to highlight, dramatically and memorably, more of that instantly elegant original signage:

Bare necessitiesI’m not sure how many other places on the Underground can boast such a sparse, yet also so attractive a contrast. I know the effect is much the greater thanks to the majority of stations having these walls absolutely covered with adverts. But even taken by itself this is bold and, certainly for Green, unexpected.

Perhaps I’ve been a little too hard on the old bugalugs. Not a lot, mind. Just a little.

Holler: way!

Up, up and awayIn the March 2013 edition of Creative Review – an issue distinguished by some very notable contributors indeed – the artist Annabel Grey talks about the challenges she faced in realising her ambitious concept for the walls of the southbound Piccadilly line platform at Finsbury Park:

“It got very complicated and mathematical, as there’s an ellipse of a landscape running behind the balloons, and I realised that when you added the spaces between the trackside panels, the landscape would have been about 360 feet high!”

This side upMuch annotation of the tunnel wall ensued, which by the sound of it involved protractors, balls of string and those enormo-sized bits of chalk you now see only in possibly inaccurate recreations of Victorian classrooms.

Grey’s plan was to have the balloons ascend, drift then descend in sequence all the way along the platform – and it works, brilliantly. Starting at the far end, her six magnificent flying machines rise, glide then fall in a perfect union of trigonometry and transportation. It’s a wonderfully uplifting and elevating spectacle for so deep and otherwise lumpen an Underground station.

Up-diddle-up-upI wonder how many people actually a) notice them at all, and b) perceive of each balloon as being part of a bigger design, running the full length of a platform hardly anybody runs the full length of.

But I rather like the fact that the concept is there for you to spot. The balloons flatter you as they flutter past. Their mathematical caper is there to be solved by the witty, not sold to the unwitting. If you miss it, the secret is safe with those who have already resolved the puzzle.

Down-diddle-down-downAs an afterthought, I was intrigued to read that the designs date from what remains, in my head, a barren time for publicly-funded urban transport: the 1980s. Grey and her team were commissioned by London Transport in 1983. They were even allowed to buy up to £15,000 worth of gold mosaic, which represented just one of a whopping 52 different coloured tiles shipped in from Vincenza.

But then I remembered London Transport was still run by the GLC at that point, which itself was run by someone who used and still uses the Underground every day of his life*.

Happy landings*As opposed to riding a bicycle to and from work, thereby never having to meet, mingle with or let alone speak to anyone else.