As I’ve mentioned before, the London Underground has always had a strong sense of design. In fact, it pretty well introduced the concept of corporate identity to the city. However, one of the most distinctive early shapers of this corporate identity is perhaps the least known. Take a look at this station:
This is the abandoned Piccadilly Line stop at York Road (just a short distance from King’s Cross if you want to look it out for yourself). But the architectural style will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in London, for there are simply dozens of buildings like these dotted along the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern Lines. Many of them are still in use, some have been converted to other purposes and some, like our friend York Road and the old entrance at Euston, are simply abandoned. This is the house style devised by Leslie Green for the stations of the Underground Electric Railway Company of London Limited.
The UERL, as it is commonly known, was the result of American transport tycoon Charles Yerkes buying out several Underground railway schemes that had run into financial difficulty, the railways that would eventually become the Bakerloo, Piccadilly, District and Northern lines (albeit only the Charing Cross branch of the latter). Whatever you might think of Yerkes as a person- certainly he served some time in the US for dodgy dealings – it can’t be denied that he knew a little something about corporate identity.
Therefore, Yerkes hired the young Leslie Green in 1903 to create a unified style for the above-ground buildings of the UERL. Green was not very well-known at the time, although he had had a number of commissions in Central London. The brief was that the stations he designed had to be adaptable to any location, cheap to build and – this factor was very important given that construction of the lines were well underway – quick to erect.
Green devised a building style not dissimilar to that used on American skyscrapers. The stations would be built around a sturdy frame of steel girders, with the walls effectively “hanging” from this (I know, architecture students, it’s more complex than that) and a flat roof. The distinctive oxblood tiles were a time- and cost-cutting measure – architectural fanciness, very much the style in the early twentieth century, could be cast into the tiles which could be stuck on to the frontage like Lego bricks (or Bayko – anyone remember Bayko?).
The skyscraper-style construction wasn’t just modernist whimsy on Green’s part – Yerkes was savvy enough to figure out that his stations would be occupying prime sites in the city, and so they should be built in such a way that extra storeys of flats or offices could be plonked on top. For all Yerkes was a visionary, his vision, like that of Zephram Cochrane, was inspired by the profit motive.
Despite the similarities between the buildings, Green was able to incorporate various differences from station to station. Compare the compact front of Aldwych to the sharp curves of Chalk Farm, for instance. For Holborn, he even abandoned the oxblood tiles altogether in favour of granite. There are plenty of less obvious detail differences if you’re prepared to examine closely.
Inside, where refurbishment hasn’t obliterated the original decor, you’ll notice that the platform-level tiling can be quite colourful, forming interesting patterns that differ between stations. The detail differences in this case served a very practical purpose, in that the Underground was an inexpensive form of transport and, in those early days, it was assumed that a large proportion of those using the trains would be illiterate. Having different patterns would allow such folk to recognise their stops with ease.
Tragically, Green died at thirty-three. However, no less than twenty-nine of his stations survive in recognisable condition, the great majority still in everyday use and all unmistakable. In terms of an architectural legacy, that’s hard to beat.