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Blaming the architecture for Crossrail’s delays is moronic and superficial

Paul Finch

Politicians’ criticisms of the Elizabeth Line’s station designs are about as useful as a chocolate teapot, says Paul Finch

It was with near disbelief that I read about politicians criticising station design for delays to the Crossrail/Elizabeth Line project. ‘If in doubt, attack architects’ seems to be the mantra of the London Assembly’s transport committee, which I note is chaired by Caroline Pidgeon. As a Lib Dem she should, of course, be used to hopeless failure by now. But who to blame?

Most of the stations are ready to use, by the way, but her committee claims that their ‘design features are complex and bespoke’. It cites (without naming the architect) Weston Williamson’s wonderful Paddington project as an example, because ‘a large steel and glass canopy will be used to bring in natural light’.

01 Paddington Station   proposed ticket hall 235985

01 Paddington Station proposed ticket hall 235985

Visualisation of Paddington Crossrail station ticket hall

Are steel and glass canopies really that complex or bespoke, except in the sense that they have to be designed for a specific context, in this case an existing listed station? These committee members wouldn’t know one way or another, but they have their own bone-headed suggestion as to how to proceed in future: ‘strive to keep designs simple, incorporating standard rather than bespoke features’.

It sounds to me as though they have been given a briefing by one of those bean counters whose cut-and-paste opinions are about as useful as a chocolate teapot in respect of major interchanges, coping with millions of passengers every year. And of course many of the ‘features’ – unnamed, naturally – will indeed be standard.

It is complex and non-synchronised signalling systems that have caused the major problem for Crossrail

When it comes to station design, Weston Williamson has a rather different track record to the know-nothing committee. This has just been recognised by them being awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in recognition of outstanding international growth. 

As the practice says, working on Elizabeth Line stations at Paddington (and Woolwich too) ‘has given us the opportunity to compete for major projects in Australia and Canada over the last three years’. As a result, the practice is designing and delivering five stations on the Metro Tunnel Project in Melbourne; upgrading Sydney’s Metro Sydenham Station; delivering two stations and associated urban realm on the Yonge metro line extension in Toronto; and in the same city designing a new regional transit centre and passenger processing facility at Pearson International Airport. Committee please note.

Roland Paoletti, superintending genius of the Jubilee Line extension station programme, pointed out many years ago that, whatever the overspend on his stations might have been, compared to the cost overruns on tunnelling, it was a drop in the ocean. If the committee reads newspapers, it will notice that it is complex and non-synchronised signalling systems that have caused a major problem for Crossrail, and that this should have been picked up by senior management (who left the organisation before the ordure hit the air-conditioning).

Terry Farrell warned Transport for London five years ago that they would not be able to complete the project on time, following an analysis required in relation to a transport study the practice was undertaking. His warnings were ignored.

The transport committee, instead of making moronic complaints about the architecture of the stations, should be taking a longer, deeper look at the history of this train-wreck.

An apology is owing

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is founded on a fallacy – that if only housing estate designs were more Classical/traditional, planning delays would evaporate and we would have no homes shortage.

I must therefore admit that I experienced a schadenfreude moment when Roger Scruton was sacked as the commission’s chairman, following remarks he had made in a magazine interview. I assumed that the New Statesman had accurately reported his views on Chinese people and the political situation in Hungary, but it turns out that by stripping the quotes from their context it seriously misled readers. Indeed in two cases, the remarks as reported are virtually the opposite of what he actually said, in a transcript now published.

Since I was too hasty in welcoming the news of Sir Roger’s removal, and falling for what now looks like propaganda, I offer him my apologies. I should have been more sceptical.

Lambeth should wake up

Tony Fretton’s proposal for a modest two-storey language school extension in Roupell Street, Waterloo, is now going to appeal following a dim-witted refusal by Lambeth planning committee. I don’t generally have time to write support letters for good projects where the architect is being given the runaround. But in this case (where the culprits are councillors rather than officers) I wrote to the planners describing the design as exemplary, which it is. The councillors should think twice before proceeding with an appeal which is quite unnecessary.


Readers' comments (4)

  • A rather strange report on a very good report:


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  • Calm down Paul! We know who the morons are, and they are everywhere, but we do have to work with them. Often they are good people hamstrung by the organisations they work for?

    Crossrail will be great, a bit like the new Kings Cross, but en masse? What was the over run or over spend on that job? Perhaps it was on time and on budget? Crossrail 2 will also be good for London and the UK. We need to be diligent and careful all the time. Peoples lives are at risk. Grenfell and it’s aftermath were caused by a whole range of factors, and people paid with their lives, and hopefully we will learn from the lessons this time. Remember Summerland or HAC concrete?

    We are bloody good at this infrastructure malarkey, and all the other aspects of the built environment. One or two mistakes were made along the way, which have now been amortised. A bit like the Empire?! (I blame Cambridge University and Cecil Rhodes for slavery. Despite being outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, long before he was born.)

    But that’s another commercial and racial arrangement altogether, and I am not qualified to comment. Enough has been said, and is still being said? A distraction from a real and current danger, Climate Change.

    And BREXIT Mrs May. And a sainthood and sacking as a reward? Our Lady Annunciata of May?

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  • The nasty surprises that have surfaced about the delays to Crossrail completion seem to be of two types..
    Those due to the now universal difficulties in commissioning complex (and perhaps insufficiently understood) engineering 'solutions' involving oh-so-clever software, be it signalling or - catastrophically - jet airliners.
    And those due to a surely far more surprising failure to accurately predict the time required to 'deliver' some of the new or upgraded stations.
    It does seem quite extraordinary that until relatively recently the amount of work required to achieve their completion was apparently hugely underestimated, but to lay this at the door of the architects and their designs is surely very simplistic - and I'm very surprised if Caroline Pidgeon and her committee have fallen for this.

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  • Industry Professional

    I am not an architect but I am wary of everything being made standardised and simple. Yes there is scope for this but people will remember something that is striking or different for many years ahead. A balance has to be struck between buildability and vision, and even then the two do not always oppose each other. Personally, I think the problem with Crossrail was that some people were scared to tell the truth for fear of being ousted. We need to recognise the value as well as the cost.
    On a related note, it is a shame that many northern transport links seem to keep being given second-place. As a "southerner" I dislike the north-south warring. London needs Crossrail but the "north" also needs better public transport.

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