You may think that London will gain a new Tube line when the Elizabeth line opens today (Tuesday 24) but the man who led its design disagrees. “It’s not the Underground, it’s not the Overground,” says Julian Robinson firmly. “It is its own thing.”
This is not just a proud father talking. The Elizabeth line uses its own full-size trains, is of enormous scale and operates somewhat differently. It may be part of London’s transport system but is its own special creation, like the DLR. Which is why, for instance, the purple roundels say “Elizabeth line” rather than just “Elizabeth” as is the convention on, say, the Bakerloo or Metropolitan. Rather than simply an additional line, it is a different “mode”, Robinson explains. “A conundrum,” he adds.
Robinson, as the Elizabeth line’s head of architecture, has been the conductor — in the sense of an orchestra rather than a bus — for slotting together all this astonishing complexity beneath our feet. He has supervised everything from the overall concept design to the door handles. When in the early 1990s he graduated from Brighton’s school of architecture at 23, his first job was with the company developing the line as Crossrail. He’s now a silver-haired 55 — and gagging for a long beach holiday.
But first, the big day. Ahead of the first phase of opening, TfL staff have been scurrying to replace some 86,000 graphic items such as carriage and station maps to show the Elizabeth line’s presence across the entire system. The imperial, deep purple livery for the line may not be to everybody’s taste (Robinson didn’t choose it) but what of the bigger picture — the architecture of the new stations? Some things are worth the wait — and the Elizabeth line has been one of them.
After a delay of more than three years and billions in inflating costs down to fiendishly difficult technicalities such as the need to mesh three signalling regimes along its length, there was a significant worry that we’d have a budget railway, certainly nothing to compare to the last massive Underground undertaking — the 1999 extension of the Jubilee line which saw a series of unique cathedral stations designed by leading architects of the day such as Michael Hopkins and Norman Foster (who has returned to design the Canary Wharf station on the Elizabeth line). It was a tour of great architecture for the price of a ticket. Robinson worked on this too and on the transformation of St Pancras before returning to Crossrail.
So, what’s it like to ride? If you board today at Paddington, one of the central section’s shallower stations, uniquely, daylight filters all the way down to platform level. Take the escalators downwards through the lofty chamber from street to trains and there is sky above you and precise brickwork to your flank which is inspired by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s grand terminal. Elegant ceiling light fittings recessed into concave concrete saucers that recall the clever fusion of the classical and the modern that characterised architect Charles Holden’s 1930s stations on the Piccadilly. Liverpool Street at the other end of Zone 1 has its own striated drama. These stations are by architects Weston Williamson + Partners and WilkinsonEyre respectively.
Grimshaw Architects, meanwhile, ensured that, below ground, there is a consistent language of spacious connecting corridors with splayed corners and perforated moulded concrete panels rather than sharp angles and blind corners. Some 30 per cent of passengers will be changing lines onto the Elizabeth and their first experience will be these taller than usual platform tunnels and much, much longer platforms. Meeting Robinson on the platform at Farringdon – soon to be London’s great subterranean crossroads – he confesses that he doesn’t not to know if it is true that the Shard would fit along a platform sideways. One of London’s newest urban myths? Still, they are huge at 210m-long. So huge that at Liverpool Street and Farringdon, funicular lifts have been installed parallel to the escalators that travel diagonally in order to reduce walking distances between platform and ticket hall. Farringdon is so large that its western entrance is by Farringdon Road and its eastern entrance close to the Barbican where the ticket hall has a Brutalist concrete grid ceiling in homage to the locale.
Navigating the Elizabeth Line might feel relatively bland to some when you compare it to, say, the deep green and oxblood tiling of the Edwardian-era stations like Covent Garden and Russell Square and there are, it is true, far less of the dramatic architectural moments found on the Jubilee Line extension but the calmness brings its own contrasting identity and was a deliberate intention from the start. After gliding down the escalators at Farringdon, Robinson points out typical calming features such as the way light sources are often invisible and bounce up to wash gently over the curves and the way clutter has been minimised. The concrete is self-finished rather than painted and the whole route is a pale griege. The perforated panels soften the acoustic and have matting behind to further soften the sound. This peace will matter when there are endless thousands of commuters at rush hour and choosing the wrong exit could send you considerably out of your way.
Picking his favourite station would be like naming his favourite child so Robinson refuses the offer. Instead, he says that one of the features he is most proud of are the fully screened platform edges. These might slice the elegant curves of the platform tunnels in two but they also protect you from noise and dirt as the trains quietly glide in to whisk you across the capital at giddy speeds. The deceptively complex screens incorporate digital signage, lighting, speakers, smoke ventilation and other techy trickery, freeing up and calming the platforms themselves in the process. There’s nothing else like them anywhere in the world, claims Robinson. The Elizabeth Line, he adds, is the first in a new generation of underground railways, decades ahead of, say, the RER lines in Paris from decades ago. The embodied carbon in its construction will be recouped by greater public transport use over the next eight to 13 years.
There is still some way to go. Bond Street is yet to open and perhaps no wonder given the construction difficulties of creating new entrance halls and escalators beneath one of London’s more historic neighbourhoods. Most suburban stations are yet to open and they have not had the same design attention lavished on them – much to the past irritation of some boroughs. What happens next for London’s public transport, however, is anyone’s guess. Crossrail 2? The Bakerloo Line extension? TfL’s finances post-pandemic mean that you shouldn’t hold your breath.
The Crossrail project boasts that as well as delivering dozens of stations, the biggest increase in passenger capacity since the Second World War, and bringing an extra 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of central London, it has created 19 Leicester Squares worth of public space improvements and 17 Shard equivalents in new commercial and residential space above ticket halls and around ventilation shafts.
The most striking example of this is around the new station entrances and Centrepoint at TCR, which is far more pedestrian-friendly than it was previously (not hard, admittedly), but it feels a grey and soulless here despite the brassy new buildings surrounding the junction and the entrances. These structures are, in great part, the consequence of the new line cross-subsidising some of its costs, and their shiny finishes are deeply superficial compared to the quality of the Elizabeth Line beneath that they helped fund.
“I couldn’t possibly comment!” laughs Robinson in a way that makes you suspect he agrees wholeheartedly. If he could wave a magic wand it would be a wish that “London could be a bit more civic in its public architecture. We need to get back to thinking long term.” Something to think about as you leave the everyday of the ticket halls behind and step towards the curves of the escalator shafts that bloom out towards you like the bell of a flower, welcoming you down into Elizabeth Line world.