Underground Journeys: Charles Holden’s designs for London Transport

Today I paid the Victoria and Albert museum a visit to have a look at the recently opened exhibition revolving around Charles Holden and the development of the London Underground.

To me, the London Underground is literally fascinating. Think about all of the elements involved within it – the standardisation of all aesthetics across all stations, the sheer volume of stations, that iconic map – it is perhaps one of Britain’s biggest brands? I am completely in love with the fact that the design style of the London Underground (well, since its revamp in the 1930s) basically changed the face of London – in fact, it is the largest building programme shaped by a single architect (Holden) since the cities Church’s were rebuilt by Christopher Wren following the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Charles Holden was already an experienced architect when he began working for London Underground, under the guidance of Managing Director Frank Pick. Both Pick and Holden were founder members of the Design and Industries Association (DIA) – a group that brought together artists, architects, manufacturers and retailers intent on improving standards of design in British commerce. As part of the standardisation of the London Underground Holden initially developed a standard ‘ folding screen’ entrance design for the station buildings that could be adapted to each of the sites whether it be free-standing or inserted into an existing building. Following this, the design moved towards “brick boxes with concrete lids” – the first of which was Sudbury Town station. This became the prototype in effect, and established a ‘kit of parts’ for future stations. Traditional English brickwork was combined with smooth concrete, metal window frames and glazed tiling. Nearly all of the stations are now listed buildings.

Holden was given responsibility for the design of all fixtures and decoration both above and below ground. This included lighting, tiling, clocks, litter bins, ticket machines and booths. He also incorporated the Underground’s distinctive ’roundel’, lettering and signage developed by Edward Johnson. The display features numerous original drawings and renderings of the proposed station designs, along with various posters and advertisements issued to showcase the new station designs and scale models of the station buildings. There is also much more information and background to the work of Charles Holden than I can relay here, so I really recommend a visit.

For me, I found it really refreshing and interesting to look at the hand drawn architectural drawings by Holden. It is so rare to see design work of this type in a hand drawn format in today’s computerised age. Such care has been taken with each and every drawing – they are so precise, because they have to be. Even the title lettering is treated as equally important as the drawing – it is simply beautiful. The London Underground is the perfect example of how to mix form and function successfully.

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