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Martin Pawley: the Underground Medici

'Like being a horseman with a saddle and stirrups, but no bridle,' is how Roland Paoletti describes his role as impresario of Jubilee Line Extension architecture. And yet he knows, bridle or none, that the performance of his stable of architects will be a measure of his lifetime's achievement. When one day a statue of Paoletti is erected - perhaps at the junction of Chris Wilkinson's and John McAslan's stations in the town square of rejuvenated Stratford - it will be because of the commissions he awarded in the early 1990s and the dogged determination with which he has defended the vision of his architects ever since.

The fee-bidding contracts for the Jubilee Line designers were always considered hard. Paoletti parodies them mercilessly: 'We're going to sail round the Pacific, where can we buy the cheapest chart?' Adding sardonically: 'There will be plenty of time to think about it after it's finished. The jle has cost so much that no one will spend another penny on it for the next 200 years.'

Paoletti walks with difficulty, with the aid of a stick - a burden for a man who must lead visitors down dark tunnels into the bowels of the earth. As he tap, tap, taps his way down concrete escape stairs dimly lit by strings of bare bulbs, and up past banks of escalators, tantalisingly installed and wired-up but not yet operating, the dreadful truth about all underground workings dawns on even his most athletic guests. Like deserted mine shafts, even the most inspiring achievement rapidly becomes a gravitational challenge.

But there are tremendous compensations down there. Take the Indiana Jones- like experience of discovering Will Alsop's station at North Greenwich. On the surface it is nowhere to be seen, its identity subsumed by Foster and Partners' squeaky-clean, shrink-wrapped transport interchange, and the enigmatic car park for 800 cars next door to the great dome that will not be available for visitors to the Millennium Experience.

No time to wonder about that. Stick to the itinerary. Trudge to the other end of the great buried sarcophagus and descend a staircase into electric gloom, and there, suddenly, magnificent as an undiscovered mummies' tomb, is a vast space crossed by a suspended avenue between shiny blue mosaic columns, all suffused with a blue luminance emanating from a great glass screen reaching into the distance. Cavour's first encounter with the Selenites comes to mind. What would H G Wells have made of all these double train- length catacombs? What would he have thought of Wilkinson's soaring, seemingly structureless roof at Stratford; of Foster's tremendous banks of steps and escalators at Canary Wharf? Of Ritchie's elegant box at Bermondsey? Of MacCormac's spectacular curved wall at Southwark?

Suddenly, from a platform below, comes Roland's voice, raised in torment: 'There's a whole lamp-post upside down holding this bloody little speaker!' He cares passionately about his architects' vision and fights a lone battle against the flood of loudspeakers, security cameras, notices, signs and adverts that threatens it from all sides. And one day there really will be a statue of him somewhere on the Jubilee Line.

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