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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for October 16th, 2007

Great Modern Buildings: Arnos Grove Tube Station

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The Guardian

The creation of the London Passenger Transport Board brought to an end the last time the capital of the Empire was the subject of private sector competition in transit. Alongside the municipally operated trams of the London County Council, East and West Ham and Croydon, were private sector trams, and buses of all sorts. The underground had been started by several different companies but had been gradually brought under one, largely American, ownership. The streets had been chaotic, with “pirate buses” chasing after passengers. Indeed it was so scary that Mrs Thatcher started looking at deregulation again, Christopher Foster (one of my profs from the LSE) brought out a monograph on what London was like before the LPTB, which resulted in a much less draconian reform, and left what became Transport for London in charge.

The task of coordinating all the disparate bits was huge. At the same time, public works as a means of getting Britain out of the economic depression were extensive. This was also the time when large swathes of underutilized farmland [formerly mainly needed to provide fodder for horses (the main source of motive power before the first world war) were no longer needed and Empire preference kept cheap food for humans flowing from Canada, New Zealand and Australia] were being developed for low cost, owner occupied housing. In fact the tube lines were so expensive to build that they never had enough traffic to pay for them until the largely surface routes into the suburbs were developed.

The stations on these new lines were monuments to good design, partly due to the foresight of Frank Pick. The tube map and the Johnson typeface were both introduced at this time. The buildings were modern, but not designed to surprise or shock but to be easy to use. In fact the interruption of the second world war meant that these designs continued into the late forties and early fifties. London’s first new tube line (the Victoria Line) followed the same principles when it was built in the sixties.

When I compare what has been done in this region, to what was done in London in the thirties, it seems clear to me that they had a much clearer idea of what they were about. There are now at least three different generations of SkyTrain stations. There is still no corporate identity. LTPB very quickly sorted out standards, and made sure that, for example, all its buses in Central London were red – to make them distinct and easy to identify in traffic. It is still impossible to detect any corporate coherence in the type faces used by Translink – not an earth shattering issue I agree but indicative, I think, of the lack of coherence and “joined up thinking” at that body, which will, of course continue under the ill advised “governance” changes about to pushed through.

LPTB brought a new spirit of public service to transport. They were not there to make money, but to make the lives of Londoners better: and that they achieved against some extraordinary obstacles. Of course, you cannot expect a dogmatist like Thatcher to appreciate that: the disciples of Hayek think that markets cure everything. But as the recent winners of the Nobel for Economics point out, markets are not very good at dealing with social or environmental issues.

No detail was too insignificant for Holden, Pick and Arnos Grove station. From 1937, LPTB bus stops, at Arnos Grove as elsewhere, were standardised to a streamlined concrete design adorned with signs by Hans Schleger. Seat fabrics of tube trains and London buses – hardwearing, innovative moquettes – were styled by textile designers such as Enid Marx (1902-1998) and the American-born Marion Dorn (1896-1964). No wonder architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described Frank Pick’s LPTB as “a civilising agent”. No wonder many of us still look at Arnos Grove station today and think, why can’t we ensure such high standards of integrated, imaginative, wholly convincing and well-crafted public design today?

And as a completely irrelevant aside, the name of the station reflects a typographical error. The place was named for a man named Arno – who owned the woodlands (or grove) that once stood there. But the chap who did the station nameplates forgot the apostrophe. So it should really be Arno’s Grove – and pronounced accordingly. But it isn’t.

And I am sorry about that double set of parentheses but felt some explanation was in order: Britain in the thirties didn’t see the need for an ALR. Once the life line across the Atlantic was cut by submarines, agricultural policies changed from dependence on cheap imported food to security of supply. A lesson we still need to learn, apparently.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 16, 2007 at 12:22 pm

Posted in privatisation, transit