“Why are you all taking photos?… It’s just a station!” barks a baffled commuter, as she carves through our group. It’s understandable I suppose. Millions use London’s underground tube network on a daily basis, reducing the impact of even the most awe inspiring stations to mere pieces of urban monotony, each to be navigated as swiftly and painlessly as possible. For those with open eyes and time to spare however, a multitude of treasures await. For this wasn’t ‘just a station’, it was Arnos Grove, one of Charles Holden’s Piccadilly Line masterpieces.
Taking a 2 1/2 hour rail journey to the big smoke, purely to walk around a selection of tube stations is probably not most people’s idea of an enjoyable Saturday out. But I can’t deny it, I’d been looking forward to this for some time. Oyster in hand, and camera on back, I set out to meet up with Modernism in Metro-land’s Josh, who would guide myself and 24 other architecture, transport and history aficionados, through some of the most iconic English tube stations ever built.
There’s a wealth of information out there on Charles Holden’s work and career, both in printed and digital form, so I’ll refrain from simply regurgitating it all here. To briefly summarise though, in collaboration with Frank Pick, the visionary managing director of the Underground during the inter-war years, Holden introduced modernism to the tube’s built environment. This initially manifested itself through facelifts of existing stations, but ultimately lead to the design of a whole family of structures for the rapidly expanding ‘metro-land’ public transport infrastructure.
Todays tour showcased the final seven stops on the northern arm of the Piccadilly Line, all completed between September 1932 and July 1933 (several of which opened simultaneously). I’ll give brief overviews of each station, and share some choice shots, although the often busy locations and limited time in each, resulted in challenging photographic conditions (at least, that’s my excuse!).
Featuring a large sunken ticket hall set beneath a cubic street level pavilion, Turnpike Lane was apparently Holden’s favourite station. It’s beauty lies in the simplicity of the design, essentially a box with a rectangular ventilation tower, generously fenestrated by huge banks of metal framed windows. Direct access into the station is via two stairways, passing beneath overhanging curved canopies on entry and exit. Originally part of a civic hub, with co-ordinated bus and tram stations, Turnpike was listed in 1994, years after the trams had ceased to run, and their shelters been demolished. Retail and passenger facilities occupy further buildings, all constructed in much the same style, albeit, rather more curvaceous in form.
Next stop up the line is Wood Green, the only station in this particular run that isn’t a detached building. Its sweeping façade bridges the gap between two C19th buildings, on a corner of a busy intersection. Two ventilation turrets rise up on each corner, originally equal in height, although one has since been extended. Internally many of the original features have long since been removed, some replaced with replicas, others simply falling victim to modernisation. Every station also features bespoke ventilation grilles designed by Harold Stable, each depicting a historical aspect of the site – in this case deer and wildfowl.
Not every ‘Holden station’ was designed in detail by the man himself, with such a rapid expansion program it simply wouldn’t have been possible. All, I believe were based on concepts and sketches by Holden, that once approved by Pick, would be passed on to other architects to develop and draw up the final plans. Bounds Green is one such example, and is credited to Charles James.
It is unique in the network, being the only station to boast an octagonal ticket hall. Said to be beneficial by, “allowing greater expanses of window to be inserted into the splayed corners”, but more importantly, it just looks pretty darn sexy. Two small kiosks are attached to each outer wall of the station, their curved frontages neatly emerging from the sharp geometric form of the parent building.
After a vigorous stroll from Bounds Green (via the delightful Grade II listed Bowes Road Pool & Library), we approach one of the two undeniable architectural icons on this stretch of track; Arnos Grove.
Inspired by the work of Swedish architect Gunnar Aspland, Holden incorporated elements from his design for Stockholm City Library into Arnos Grove. The striking ‘drum on a box’ form of the ticket hall is a triumph of minimalist construction. Something that a passing cyclist felt the need to emphasise by yelling “cylindrical drum” at Josh as he peddled past. The drum in question is huge, towering over the booking hall with one central column supporting its lid-like roof. The original ticket booth (or ‘passometer’) nestles at the base, and now serves as a small museum to the station. Period phone booths, restored some years ago, also remain in situ, their oak by-fold doors securing further exhibits on the buildings history.
Despite its eye catching appearance, Arnos Grove was apparently Frank Pick’s least favourite design, and was only was only approved after a series of drawn out persuasive discussions.
Arriving by train into Southgate you are greeted in a wonderful subterranean environment, illuminated in a warm glow by the original bronze up-lighters. The ticket hall appears to be of similar design to Arnos Grove, only with a considerably lower ceiling. It’s only once you’ve exited and glanced behind you that the penny drops. There’s really no other way I can think to describe it other than a flying saucer. I tend to associate the golden age of science fiction with the atomic era of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, but clearly Holden was way ahead of the curve.
Opening in March 1933, this giant circular station, features a large overhanging canopy, offering weather protection to those window shoppers passing the numerous integrated kiosks. A smaller central cylinder rises up, with continuous glazing following the whole circumference. On top, an illuminating antenna-like mast crowns the fallen UFO, luring the humanoids in.
Like Turnpike Lane, Southgate is a civic hub, with co-ordinated bus shelters and community facilities, all of which neatly circle the mothership.
After the giddy heights of the last three stations, Oakwood (originally Enfield West) is perhaps a little disappointing externally. Another C. H. James building, it follows a fairly simple ‘Sudbury Box’ design (Sudbury Town being the first of several stations to be built in this style). Things improve internally, with a huge double height ticket hall bathed in natural light, two original ticket booths, a wonderful curved shop, and a reinforced concrete ceiling reminiscent of the unhealthy potato grids I occasionally feed my kids.
The terminus on this stretch of line is more intriguing than first impressions would have you believe. At street level, a fairly simple entry building graced with two stumpy towers greets the pedestrian, while a streamlined bus shelter with duel descending stairwells, is present opposite. Had the original plans been realised, the main building would be bookend by two substantial integrated office blocks, and perhaps even a cinema. Ultimately, these were never built, but the true achievement becomes apparent as you descend below ground.
A huge reinforced concrete hanger covers the three platforms extending from the ticket hall. Daylight streams in from overhead skylights, fortified with light from electric globes dangling from the heavens. Could this be the birth of Brutalism in England? I’m not sure, but its a beautiful church-like environment, and a fitting end to marvellous collection of transport structures. Subtle yet grand, minimal yet alive, functional yet beautiful.
If this type of tomfoolery is up your street, I’d highly recommend getting yourself booked onto a future Modernism in Metro-land tour. They are fairly infrequent, and sell out quickly, but are well worth getting involved with. Josh also writes regular articles on his site about… well, Modernism in Metro-land, so do have a read.
For some beautiful period photographs and detailed information on Charles Holden’s work with the London Underground get yourself a copy of ‘Bright Underground Spaces’ by David Lawrence. A gorgeous hardback bible, suitable for coffee tables and bookcases alike.