When you get off at West Ham you know you are north of the Thames. So it is a mite disconcerting to find the Millennium Dome bulkily terminating the view down the end of the track. You are reminded that you are not far from the river and that this is a new station on London's Jubilee Line Extension.
West Ham Station is actually more complicated than that because it is an interchange station, the meeting of four separate lines: the District and Hammersmith & City line has its stations underground whereas the Jubilee and North London lines have surface platforms.
It is unusual in that more than 90 per cent of passengers use the station solely to switch from one line to another. Only seven per cent use the station as a destination. Despite the potential complexities of such a brief, the overwhelming impression of the new station is of simplicity and clarity. To a large extent this is the consequence of van Heyningen and Haward Architects' use of brick as the primary cladding material over a concrete-frame structure with glass block as the principal glazing method - and of having used these simple, repetitive elements within a rigorously observed structural and visual system.
Bridge as backbone
The plan of the station is a blocky squared-up Z with a crossbar. The backbone of the scheme, the ligature between the top and bottom bars, is the bridge. It is a concrete truss structure clad with glass blocks and some clear glass strip windows.
It forms the top level of the big ticket hall, crosses a reasonably busy road, the two tracks of the North London Line (and feeds down the stairs of its lightly used island platform), then crosses the down track of the Jubilee Line and joins the end of the upper level of the structure above this platform where there is a set of escalators down to the trains. The North London Line platform has a concrete canopy supported on brick-clad concrete columns.
Glass blocks are to be found on the bridge, on some of the upper level of the Jubilee Line platform and in the stepped roof of the North London Line stairway and around the upper part of the ticket office. Almost everywhere else it is brick. This is not indiscriminate brick. It is organised in the context of the concrete structure and its 6m by 6m grid. Columns are clad in brick but always with a half-metre deep section omitted at the top. Although at first glance this could be read as an ironic gesture, a kind of negative of the classical capital, it is actually there to show that this is brick cladding and not structure. There is always a brick-deep concrete capping to underline that this is deliberate and not a casual omission.
The rules adopted by van Heyningen & Haward are that freestanding columns are circular (using radial specials) and that pilasters and any columns which grow out of the brickwork are square. As with all systems there are exceptions, and the colonnade across the entrance to the ticket hall has free-standing columns which are square. It is arguable that above all systems exist to promote consistency and, taking the ticket hall as a distinct element in the composition, its interior has quite a lot of semi-free-standing square columns. There was plainly some discussion about this in the office because there is an extant sketch of this colonnade with circular columns. Perhaps only architects of a certain age and fondness for Classicism will understand any of this.
Stopping the brickwork short at the head of a column results in odd infelicities, especially when pilasters are used externally on a little brick and concrete structure atop the Jubilee Line platform.
The other awkwardness occurs when pilasters are engaged against plain panels of glass blockwork and there is nothing with which the necking can relate intrinsically or visually. On the other hand, it is reassuring to be made aware of the reinforced-concrete structure, especially in the ticket hall where some of the long columns would have been disturbingly slender as structural brickwork. The circular columns supporting the canopy of the Northern Line platform incorporate a rainwater downpipe flush with the surface of the curving specials.
In addition, the architect has refused to use metal louvres. Birkin Haward says: 'We have a slight problem with them so we have used hitand-miss brickwork with a bird mesh behind to maintain the integrity of the brick surface.'
Although there is no cornice, van Heyningen and Haward has deployed a kind of high-level dado that has the primary function of accommodating signs and directions and a secondary one of breaking up large panels of brick walling.
Gridlock Haward is quite cheerful about the grid. He says: 'We developed the dimensional matrix quite quickly. There is nothing magical about 6m but it's a sensible span for concrete and it just so happened that it worked over the whole site.'
The practice had 27 weeks in which to design the scheme and complete production drawings, and it is likely that this could not have happened without the discipline of the grid - and the fact that there was very little time wasted on fudging. The only traces of forcing the design to suit the grid are in the ceiling of the ticket hall where there are some hefty beams and some spans of 12 and 18m.
The other case is the location of the stairway down to the North London Line island platform which could not, of course, be shifted. The architect has simply fitted the stairway structure wherever it had to connect in the regular rhythm of bays in the bridge and filled in the gaps either side.
Haward is comfortable with the inevitable comparisons with the important Piccadilly Line stations of Charles Holden. In fact, the design team went to study examples, especially Oakwood which Haward describes as 'straight out of 30s Holland and Sweden'. And, of course, in brick.
But West Ham is not even remotely a pastiche of the work of Dutch and Swedish architects - nor of Holden. Rather, it is a reserved, polite building within a very clearly thought out group of forms whose only resonance with Holden is the soaring ticket hall with its clerestory windows.