Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Destination Southgate

The centre of cultural life at the grammar school I was privileged to attend was located somewhere between the rugby scrum and the parade ground where members of the school Cadet Corps were prepared for the task of inheriting the earth. Cruelly, nature had ill-endowed me for chasing the oval ball and lacking the temperament for square-bashing, I gave my time to more effete pursuits including the study of architecture via the pages of Bannister-Fletcher and J M Richards. A book that I spent many hours browsing was Richards’s Pelican paperback Introduction to Modern Architecture where I learned about such wonders as the Gardner Warehouse in Glasgow and the Cité Radieuse in Marseille. I’ve written before about the strange power of this modest book to shape my preferences and another example was the inclusion of Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove tube station (above). The photograph of Arnos Grove was one I kept returning to, comparing its pristine Modernist lines with the ramshackle (Moor Park, which then still had wooden platforms) and drearily suburban cottage specimens (Chorleywood and Rickmansworth) to be seen in my corner of Metroland. But although it was only 20 miles from home there was never any compelling reason to visit that part of North London. 

From a contemporary perspective the partnership of architect and administrator that existed between Charles Holden and Frank Pick at London Transport in the 1930s seems both miraculous and anachronistic and I finally went to see for myself the legacy of this creative collaboration. Miraculous in the excellence of design and the consistency of vision at every level. Anachronistic in the way that it was a product of a high-minded sense of public duty, simplistically caricatured as the patronising art of knowing what’s best for people and imposing it upon them without regard for their views. The difference was that Holden and Pick were designing to meet the needs of all Londoners – not just a minority of the wealthiest and most influential. 

Charles Holden designed a spectacular low-rise cylindrical station building for Southgate, like a spacecraft touched down on a roundabout – an affinity enhanced after dark by the concealed lighting round the cornice and the concentric rings of a lighting beacon on the station roof that glows with the promise of the power of future technologies. Even after 80 years the conceptual clarity of design retains its excitement. The clean flowing lines have been protected by a Grade II* listing at English Heritage (that includes all surface buildings, platforms and escalators) and careful stewardship on the part of Transport for London. The street level interior is illuminated by a glazed clerestory and a central steel column supports the roof. Passengers ascend via escalators into an airy and elegantly curved interior enhanced by vertical and horizontal tiled surfaces. 

Arnos Grove is another Holden design, listed by English Heritage in 2011 at Grade II* and featuring a tall brick built drum with vertical glazing surmounting the station. Like Southgate and others, it was designed to function as a prominent landmark and succeeds triumphantly whilst maintaining a strong sense of dignity and restraint. The lofty ticket hall interior complete with fluted central column offers a generous sense of space for public circulation. Holden drew inspiration from Scandinavian architecture, adapting the style of large public buildings to the more modest proportions of local stations while resisting any compromise on quality or detail. 

The story of Frank Pick’s all-embracing commitment to design excellence has been told elsewhere but Southgate and Arnos Grove offer a great opportunity to experience the full impact of how this worked. The northern extension to the Piccadilly Line in 1930-33 was enabled by a government loan guarantee scheme for construction projects to relieve unemployment while planners and developers built large new housing estates to expand the market for the new service. This level of co-ordination seems impossible to achieve in the age of PFI and outsourcing. While Crossrail is a stunning engineering project, there is no associated planned approach to any industrial or residential development that may follow. 

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