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Friday Arts Feature - London Underground

by British Awakening – 20 Sep 2019

Like most people that live and work in London I have a bit of a love hate relationship with the Tube. I can think of few things more dreary than commuting to work on a crowded train for the best part of an hour on a cold wet November morning. Any journey to Canary Wharf always made me think of the workers in Metropolis trudging towards a day’s hard labour, the bank of escalators at the station struck me as being directly inspired by the dark genius of Fritz Lang. I don’t work in Canary Wharf anymore but whenever I have to travel there for other reasons I get the same sense of dread as I approach those depressing escalators.

The tedium of my commute aside, travelling by Tube for social reasons is a different prospect and provides a different focus on what is after all a remarkable system. Under less transactional circumstances the passenger on London Underground has the opportunity to marvel at some of the craftsmanship and architectural beauty that abound on the system. From the 19th Century heritage tiling on platforms to aid a largely illiterate population locate their stop to the art deco finishes on many of the stations such as the up lights on the escalator shaft at St John’s Wood station a more patient eye starts to notice that London Underground matches form with function on an even basis.

On the larger scale are the stations themselves and there are some real beauties such as Chiswick Park and East Finchley, the real gem for me is Southgate station on the Piccadilly Line. Southgate is an art deco masterpiece designed by the great architect Charles Holden. Opening in 1933 the station was built from brick, concrete and glass, the surface buildings resembling a drum set into a roundabout. The circular design suggests a roof supported solely by glass – a trick achieved by having a central supporting column in the ticket hall. The roof is crowned by a tesla coil structure suggesting that the station itself is an energy source.

Image By Christine Matthews, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

It’s not just the exterior that is worthy of a blog, the ticket hall itself has bronzed framed information panels, the ticket barriers cut the diameter of the hall with the central supporting column sitting firmly in the middle. The glazing at the top of the drum now very clearly seen to be reinforcing the illusion that the concrete roof and the tesla coil above it are sitting on nothing but glass panels.

I remember the first time I saw it, I travelled with friends to London to see an Arsenal game one Winter’s evening, we parked near the station and it was dark when we approached it. At that time I lived in Hertfordshire, I had used the Tube on occasion when visiting London but only the rather bland stations at Euston and Victoria, so this came as a bit of a surprise, I had no inkling that the Underground could be so beautiful. If I can convince you to see Southgate station I strongly recommend you do so on a clear evening to see it lit up.

The building is almost ninety years old but has been lovingly restored by London Underground. To me it is not only that it is such a striking building, it has a futuristic quality that with the right frame of mind and a playful eye it can be imagined as some wonderful art deco spaceship sitting their poised, waiting for the right person to come along and realise its real purpose. Flights of fancy aside I am struck by the thought that Southgate was built in the era of the Great Depression yet in that era of austerity and gloom they had the will to build something that looked to a more hopeful future. This was a time when technology and progress offered more hope than fear, how strange that ninety years on these same two harbingers of change blight our lives with great unease.

Southgate station serves as a reminder of what this country has somehow forgotten, that there is always hope and hope lay in the future. The ground for this hope was sown by far sighted people from our past.

Enjoy your weekend and mind the gap!

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