Here we visit three of the eight stations that Charles Holden‘s team designed for the Piccadilly Line as it was extended to Cockfosters in 1932-33.
As a result of the ongoing economic depression in Britain the government had introduced development loans in the late 1920’s to stimulate the construction industry; the Underground Group were able take advantage of these to fund a long overdue extension of the Piccadilly Line, and the subsequent designs which Holden’s team produced are superb examples of functionalist architecture. The team’s bold new geometric designs, still very radical in the British context, were undoubtedly the fruits of an extensive European research tour which Holden, Frank Pick and W.P.N. Edwards had undertaken in 1930. The group toured rail systems across Europe and were inspired particularly by the new stations of the Berlin U and S Bahns, but they were also gratified to note that many of the networks had copied elements of earlier London Underground designs.
At Southgate Holden finally found sufficient space to build an integrated transport hub, with buses entering the station forecourt on either side of a central station building, and the whole being surrounded by a new retail parade. It is here that Holden built his unabashed homage to European Modernism (he was later to honour Walter Gropius by using his glazed stairwells at East Finchley in 1939) and it is still a surprisingly bold vision to this day. The station also marked a new willingness on behalf of the Underground Group’s management to take an interest in local (sub)urban planning and civic development.
“With the opening of the terminal station at Cockfosters we are in full possession of the last-completed extension of London’s railway system, and it is impossible for an architectural journal to resist the opportunity of congratulating the community that time, place and persons so far coincide as to put control now into the hands of Mr Pick, and furnish him with so able an executive agent as Mr C. H. Holden, to whose clear thinking, fertile imagination, and sound structural sense is owing work which it is no exaggeration to say has revolutionized our ideas of suburban stations.”
The Architect and Building News, 10/11/1933, Vol 136, p165.
Arnos Grove Station
Arnos Grove station opened during the same year that construction began on Holden’s stately headquarters for the University of London at Senate House. At Arnos Grove Holden assigned the project to his assistant Charles Hutton, who used a circular drum-like form in place of Holden’s favoured cuboid form; with a steel frame and a central column (incorporating the ticket office) supporting a concrete slab roof. The design is said to be inspired by Gunnar Asplund’s Public Library in Stockholm (1924-28), and was not a favourite of Frank Pick who grudgingly signed off on the plans ‘under protest’. The station is now Grade II* listed.
Holden favoured using locally manufactured hand-made bricks for his stations, arranging them in different bond patterns and colour bands at each station. Portland stone chips were added to the concrete mix and the final finish was polished smooth to give a hard-wearing and luxurious surface. Extensive use was made of the latest window technology to introduce large expanses of glass, and the steel frames were painted at each station to match the local colour variants chosen for the interior ceramic tiling and paint finishes. Examples can be seen throughout the station of Holden and Stanley Heap‘s bespoke Underground signage, furniture and lighting, although in some instances these have been crowded out by modern additions.
Bounds Green Station
Bounds Green Station was opened on 19 September 1932 in the same initial phase as Arnos Grove. Here Holden was ably assisted by Charles James who uses an octagonal variant of the famous ‘Sudbury Box’ design (named for Holden’s prototype station at Sudbury Town, completed 1930-31), which Holden described modestly as a brick box with a concrete lid. Here it is flanked asymmetrically by a squat yet charming ventilation tower, and symmetrically by two small retail units. A canopy is cantilevered out to shelter both entrance ways. The fine brickwork and choice of colour is particularly pleasing at Bounds Green. New designs were being developed below ground too, and at Bounds Green we see the first instance of the ‘suicide pits’ carved out beneath the track alongside the platforms, which are now a standard safety feature on the tube network designed to reduce injury by providing refuge space beneath trains. Bounds Green Station is Grade II listed.
Southgate Station opened on 13 March 1933 as part of the second and final phase of the Cockfosters Extension. From this point on the stations were mainly breaking new ground and thus providing a catalyst for the development of further residential suburbs. Property development in this part of London had been slow due to the lack of transport links, and the Underground Group were keenly aware that a new building boom would begin as soon as their plans were published. The opportunity therefore arose for them to take a lead, or at least attempt one, in the development of these new suburbs; something seen as important following recent experience from the previous decade which had shown just how badly private property developers could go wrong. One can certainly say that Frederick Gibberd’s flats at Ellington Court in Southgate are the type of building which Holden would like to have encouraged, but alas such enlightened Modernist developments were to prove rare, and the construction of grotesque semi-detached housing continued apace until interrupted by the war.
Southgate station retains many of its original features including Holden’s striking globular column lights, which are dotted around the interchange, and two lovely examples of his large combined seating, shelter and lighting units. Unique across the network is the unusual decorative sculpture applied to the roof of the circular station, which features tiered concrete, glass and bronze rings topped off with a copper ball, and is strongly suggestive of industrial electrical equipment. Much use was made of electric floodlighting at all the new stations: electricity was cheap and the powerful lights, aside from being great advertising and symbols of a new modernised network, could boost the colour tones of brick and Portland stone to bright orange and white at night. Holden’s bespoke lighting and signage continues beneath ground. The current escalators, although no longer original for safety reasons, were specially re-manufactured in bronze to meet English Heritage requirements and thus a period look is maintained.
That Holden, then aged 57, was working on such a bold futuristic design concurrently with something so formal and stately as Senate House shows an impressive flexibility of mind and ability. That such a wonderful development languishes in a state of unenthusiastic repair (it was last restored in 1991) is sadly typical of things in the UK. Alas the days of proud station masters with the budget to beautify their stations are gone, and the results can be seen here in the long-dead grass beds and greasy pathways marred with discarded chewing gum. One can only imagine how pleasing Southgate station would be if the shopping parade (now mostly forlorn and empty) was brought back to life, and the station concourse given the proper maintenance it deserves.
© Modernist Tourists 2017