Monday 5 April 2010

The Suburban Sublime

This is not a newly landed art deco UFO - it is Southgate Underground station, towards the end of the Cockfosters branch of the Piccadilly Line. On Saturday, I was in this to me new part of north London/ Hertfordshire, enjoying a walk with my cousin in the extensive grounds of Trent Park, a handsome Georgian mansion - once the home of Philip Sassoon, cousin of Siegfried - with gardens (including a beautiful Japanese garden), parkland, avenues and woods around it, not to mention a grand obelisk for an eyecatcher. Trent Park alone would have been worth the trip and made a thoroughly enjoyable day out - but this part of the country also has some of the most extraordinary Underground stations ever built. They are the creations of the modernist Charles Holden, working for the great Frank Pick, who, as head of London Transport, was perhaps the most effective, discerning and influential patron of art and design this country had in the 20th century. The Holden stations are small masterpieces, ingeniously and elegantly designed for their purpose, using simple shapes and plain surfaces and integrating every element of the design - lighting, seating, tiling, even litterbins - into one harmonious, enjoyable whole. They are modernism at its least forbidding and most friendly. Southgate is almost playful - especially when lit up at night, as in the picture, with its art deco patterns and strange topknot like a Tesla coil - but it is also a wonderfully clever construction, with the whole roof supported, umbrella-like, from a single central column. Happily, almost nothing of its original charm has been lost over the years, and it was sensitively restored a couple of years ago. If only all London Underground stations were designed to this standard, with this flair, it would be a pleasure to use the Tube - apart from riding on the actual trains, that is; for all their pleasing remnants of golden age styling, those Piccadilly Line trains can never be fun (especially for someone my height).


  1. Like many of your posts Nige, interesting in themselves, but edging readers into a bit of online poking about to satisfy their part-knowledge.
    How interesting to note, on Wiki, that Holden twice turned down a Knighthood, insisting that architecture was a collaborative activity.
    What a pity that a few more of our less modest practitioners of the craft don't sing more often from that songsheet, both personally, and in the often inflated buildings they will to us.

  2. very interesting stuff! Thankyou for posting aobut this, I am interested in modernist architecture and have always loved the whole 'retro-progressive' ambience of 'metroland'

    - strange how the 1930's seemed to have such a strong divide between the wonderful futuristic shapes seen so much in public architecture like tube stations, garages and cinemas, as opposed to the far more ubiquitous suburban semi, which was a far more dowdy and backwards-looking mock tudor affair.

  3. Yes - and it was a golden age of neo-Georgian - parades of shops, post offices, mansion blocks - often very well done, but mostly lacking that retroprogressive (yes indeed!) zing.

  4. Or, as Nick Knight would have it, zang!

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