Art Deco on the Underground
In 2013 Transport for London commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground.
The events looked back over 150 years of operation and celebrated some of the personalities who had contributed to the growth and success of the system. One of the biggest of those contributors, Frank Pick, has long been one of my business heroes.
I first became aware of Pick whilst I was still at school when I borrowed a library book about him. The title of Christian Barman’s excellent biography – “The Man who Built London Transport” says it all. It is hard to overstate Pick’s influence on transport in London. His collaboration with architect Charles Holden had a lasting impact on how the capital actually looks too.
A great way to appreciate the Pick-Holden partnership is to take a walk in north London and spend a few hours exploring the stations of the Piccadilly line extension of 1932.
Much has been written about Frank Pick and his partnership with Holden. My own modest attempt is here
The Cockfosters Extension
The railway that became the Piccadilly line was opened in 1906 and initially stretched from Hammersmith in the west to Finsbury Park in the north. By the late 1920s the large number of passengers changing at both termini meant there was considerable pressure on bus and tram services. Extensions were planned to ease the chronic overcrowding and, in order to alleviate unemployment, they were funded as public works projects.
At the western end the Piccadilly line simply took over parts of the District Line and extended itself to new termini at Hounslow West and Uxbridge. The old District line stations were rebuilt in Holden’s new style, with Sudbury Town being the first and the prototype for all subsequent stations.
At the northern end, however, a whole new line was needed. It would stretch for 7 miles north from Finsbury Park into the outer London Borough of Enfield. The first half was underground but the line eventually emerged into what was then open countryside to terminate at Cockfosters right at the edge of London.
The line called for 7, eventually 8, new stations. Charles Holden had a hand in designing them all, and today 7 of the 8 are Grade 2 or 2* listed buildings. The construction of the new line, particularly into open country, gave Holden a lot more freedom to experiment and further adapt his style.
Each of the 8 stations represents a fascinating variation on a central theme. They were the subject of an entire Open University TV programme on architecture in the 1980s, and visiting them makes an interesting day out for anyone with an interest in the modernist style. It also offers a glimpse of exactly how Frank Pick intended his modern public transport system to look.
Walking to Cockfosters
The walk is from Turnpike Lane to Cockfosters and it should take around 3 hours.
A walk round the outer London suburbs might not be on the top of everyone’s list, but walking between the stations is a great way to see them in their context. It is also quite an interesting experience as you feel London’s grip slowly relax as you go from busy shopping street to the very edge of the metropolis. If you don’t want to walk there is also a tube line of course!
To start, get a Travel Card that includes at least Zones 2-5 and get yourself to Finsbury Park Station. Head to the northbound Piccadilly Line platform (Platform 1).
Finsbury Park (1906), although not part of the extension, is an interesting tube station in its own right. It features the shallowest underground “tube” platforms in London and needs neither escalator nor elevator to reach them. The Piccadilly line platforms are decorated with hot air balloon mosaics in honour of the early balloonists who used the nearby park to launch their crafts.
From Finsbury Park take a northbound Piccadilly line train and alight at the first stop; Manor House (remain on the platform).
Manor House (1932) was the first station on the extension. It was designed as a tram interchange and consequently has no significant surface buildings. It is the one station not to be a listed building.
Nevertheless the tube platforms do have several interesting features. All the extension stations feature attractive biscuit-coloured tiling with lining in a variety of colours. Manor House is lined in blue. There are also neat little Art Deco styling touches on the grating. The tracks are fitted with the first suicide pits ever to be included at a tube station.
From Manor House board another northbound Piccadilly line train and alight at the next stop; Turnpike Lane. Ascend the escalator and exit the station.
Turnpike Lane (1932) was designed as a major bus interchange and still functions as one today. The ticket hall is an enormous box in the “Sudbury Town” style and is accompanied by two large ventilation towers. The station concourse benefits from a huge amount of light pouring in, cathedral style, from the tall windows. Turnpike Lane, in common with other stations on the extension, features beautiful Art Deco up-lighters. It is Grade 2 listed.
From Turnpike Lane walk up High Road for about 15 minutes. High Road is a busy north London thoroughfare and offers an interesting mix of shops. Many of the buildings date from long before the tube line was completed, although there is a lot of modern development too. Wood Green Station is at the junction of High Road and Lordship lane. Wander in and examine the concourse.
Wood Green (1932) was built on a relatively congested corner site. It takes the “Sudbury-Town” style and curves it and balances it with two ventilation shafts at each corner. It is Grade 2 listed.
From Wood Green continue walking up High Road and then turn left just before St Michael’s Church into Bounds Green Road. The scenery now changes and there are a lot of Edwardian houses. It starts to become a lot greener too. Bounds Green Station is about a 20 minute walk and is located at the junction with Durnsford Road. Wander in and examine the concourse.
Bounds Green (1932) is designed in an interesting octagonal style. It is Grade 2 listed. In 1940 a German bomb fell behind the station and penetrated to the platforms below. The sixteen people who died in the attack are commemorated by a plaque on the concourse.
From Bounds Green continue walking up Bounds Green Road and cross the North Circular Road in the process. The Piccadilly Line has now emerged from its tunnel and it can be seen crossing the North Circular itself on a bridge to the right.
Turn right into Upper Park Road and then left into Palmers Road. Suddenly all the buildings are more modern. It is quite clear that most of the area would have just been open countryside in the early 1930s. Follow Palmers Road until it ends in a T junction with Bowes Road. Arnos Grove Station (about a 25 minute walk from Bounds Green) is directly opposite on Bowes Road. Wander in and examine the concourse.
Arnos Grove (1932) is the first station to be totally on the surface. It takes the “Sudbury-Town” design and curves it into a cylindrical drum. The design was inspired by the Stockholm city library and it is regarded as a very significant modernist building of national interest. A few years ago Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic in the Guardian, named it as one the 12 most significant modern buildings in the world. The list also included the Sydney Opera House and the Empire State Building so that is quite a compliment.
It is my own personal favourite station too. The old ticket booth in the centre of the concourse includes a small display about the history of the station, and also about Pick and Holden. It is Grade 2* listed.
From Arnos Grove walk east along Bowes Road and then take the first left into Arnos Road and follow it until the entrance of Arnos Park. Navigate through the park and emerge near the junction of Waterfall Road and Morton Way. The Piccadilly Line is visible on the left as it passes through the park on a viaduct.
Exit the park onto Waterfall Road and turn left down Ashfield Road. Ashfield Road is obviously a 1930s housing development built just after the Tube Line extended here.
Walking down this road it is not hard to imagine “1930s man” leaving his brand new house to go to his brand new Art Deco station and catch his modern tube train to his job in London. I imagine he would have probably worked in one of the new industries like advertising or radio.
At the end of Ashfield Road exit onto a path and follow it and keep to the right as it leads you to Bladgen’s Lane. At the end of Bladgen’s Lane turn left onto the High street. Southgate station (25 minutes from Arnos Grove) is a few yards further up the High Street. Wander in and examine the concourse.
Southgate (1933) sits at the centre of a traffic island. It resembles an Art Deco flying saucer that has landed in the middle of a 1930s high street. It is circular in design and features a flat projecting roof with a Tesla coil mounted on the top. It is Grade 2* listed.
The area surrounding the station features a shopping arcade in matching style and decorative seating areas incorporating the Underground Logo.
The line itself has entered a short tunnel at this point and so the platforms below are effectively tube platforms. The escalators that lead down to them are, almost uniquely on the modern tube system, decorated in a bronze scheme very close to their original state. The uplighters are in the original style too. As a consequence of all this quite a lot of scenes from period films and TV series have been shot here.
It is worth passing through the ticket barrier for a ride down to the platforms and back again for a closer look at the beautiful treatment of the escalators.
From Southgate walk north along Chase Road. Compared with other parts of Europe the modernist style never gained much popularity for private dwellings in the UK. Its use was more popular in cinemas and public buildings. Most houses of the 1920s and 1930s, like those in this area of north London, were far more conservative in style. This beautiful building on Chase Road is a notable exception.
Continue along Chase Road for about 25 minutes until it ends in a T Junction with Bramley Road. Oakwood Station is just to the right. Wander in and examine the concourse.
Oakwood (1933) had never originally intended to be a site for a station, yet it is actually one of the most stunning designs on the whole extension. It is a larger version of “Sudbury-Town” and the proportions are impressive. The height of the ceiling means that a huge amount of light enters the concourse from the tall windows. As with Arnos Grove there is a small exhibition about the station in the old ticket booth in the centre of the concourse. Like Arnos Grove and Southgate it is Grade 2* listed.
From Oakwood walk west along Bramley Road and then turn first right into Westpole Avenue. Walk the whole length (20 minutes) of Westpole Avenue until it ends at a T Junction with Cockfosters Road. Turn right onto Cockfosters Road and the station is just a short distance along on the right hand side. Wander in, examine the concourse, then pass through the barrier and onto one of the platforms.
Cockfosters (1933) was the final station to open (a few months later than Oakwood) and is located right at the edge of the London Borough of Enfield. Despite being the terminus the surface buildings on Cockfosters road are not very substantial. Most of the station building is actually below the road level and includes an extensive concourse. The real centre point is the train shed, a simple but elegant concrete box, which intentionally shares a lot of features with the western terminus at Uxbridge. The station is a Grade 2 listed building.
The very edge of London
Board a Southbound Piccadilly Line train and head back to Finsbury Park.
End back at Finsbury Park (21 minutes) or, to learn more about Pick and Holden, go to the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden (34 minutes) or, to see Pick’s new memorial, get off at Piccadilly Circus (37 minutes).
I have visited these stations quite a few times now and the thing that always strikes me about them is, although they are almost 90 years old, they still look quite modern.
Approach one of these stations on a cold winter evening and from across the road you will see the beautiful light emanating from the building. Then just outside you will feel the warm air coming up from the platforms inviting you in. As you enter you will see all the roundels, the maps and the Johnston typeface. You know immediately that you are about to begin your journey on an integrated public transport system.
That, of course, is the great legacy of Frank Pick.