The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
This might be challenging the brief but instead of choosing a piece of Architecture, a single building, a single entity of society, I have chosen somewhere that is public and accessible. However it is a piece of Architecture and a system for society, a transport system. When I pass through there, almost everyday, I think about the history and how it has become something that has been built for its purpose. The London Underground, which is for me, one of the greatest inventions of Architecture, as the tunnels are technically Architecture that link London.
The underground transport system makes me think of how people have utilised space to manage society and the population. It is essentially an organised piece of Architecture, although most people wouldn’t describe it as organised when you’re actually travelling on it. Society is growing rapidly and it is one of the only things that help manage our population and it has spread worldwide, causing underground transport to be a more effective way to get around for work, social and general related purposes. The first of it being opened in 1863 following former railway visionaries of Charles Pearson in 1845, it has since been a network of underground Architecture. As a method to reduce the overcrowding of London, it was invented to link the main areas of Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross named the Metropolitan line, which proved to be a great success. It was regarded as something exciting and innovative and a revolutionary start of a new London Transport system. However, Tube stations were not always used for transport as they provided air shelters throughout WW2 and it was only post war that the expansion of the tube system started to happen. To this day, the London Underground is a living memorial, an ode to an era when Britain was unsafe and an intuitive solution for preserving society.
The London Underground ranges from modernist designs such as Arnos Grove with its relatively simplistic façade, designed by Charles Holden, to the likes of Hillingdon, that is light and airy and more of a structural casing rather than a station. It could be said that is due to the face it is newer than the traditional London Underground that only branched around Central London. However, for me they are merely façades and regardless of their exteriors, the actual Architecture of the underground is the tunnels themselves and the platforms in which we stand on and the things that we view whilst waiting for our trains.
You know that you are in a central London Underground station when you can see the faded advertisements and the rough concrete interior that has an almost brutalist nature about it. There is metaphorical and literal dirtiness in the air of the underground that deems it more working class in a sense, despite its rather expensive reality of fares, it is widely accessible and acceptable for anyone to use it. It is something that regulates the class system almost, as it forces those, both wealthy and poor, to use it, as they know there isn’t a better way to avoid the congestion around London. It is somewhere where people can be completely unsociable yet they not thought less of, as it is somewhere to have your own thoughts in amongst the crowdedness. It is somewhere that is nearly always busy and rushed and somewhere where people can’t wait to leave, but also somewhere where they catch up on sleep on the long ride home, or observe people around them. Unlike a bus stop or an airport, The London Underground feels different to me. This is possibly due to its enclosed spaces and its lack of view when you are immersed underground in the tunnels, relying on its path to guide the train to its destination. Nevertheless, it is artwork really; it is design, although hidden and relatively unseen. It is a journey you can never be really sure of, as although safety is a main priority, my thoughts are always obscured in the back of my mind when it is dark and the train grounds to a halt at a red signal but perhaps that is just the pessimist in me. It is an expensive form of travel for what is actually is, and many Londoners have grown to accept yet detest it as many would agree that service replacements and delays are still an everyday struggle.
Nonetheless they provide a cultural insight into British society too, with many stations spaces being utilised by buskers for street entertainment such as Piccadilly circus in which the music echoes through the station whether you want to listen or not. Stations also showcase lively artwork, for instance, Tottenham Court Road that is home to a vast display of mosaics by the pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi installed in 1984. One could say that the tube helps us make sense of our surroundings that is if we are from the London area, as the tube is iconic for Londoners and we learn the station names before we learn the destinations themselves. It is a maze of mystery and from above, seems strange to think we have this entire network underground, another world so to speak, hidden from view, that is until it becomes the overground but I suppose that is another invention altogether.