diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 23, 2013

PICCADILLY: the tiles

Dylan loves them. He's the Piccadilly line driver you might have seen on The Tube documentary on BBC2 last week, and he loves the tiles down the Piccadilly line. That's the original tiles on the original platforms, added to give each station a visual identity for the benefit of the illiterate. As Dylan says, here, "what more simpler method could you use?"

To find these tiling patterns you need to travel on the original section of the Piccadilly line, designed by Leslie Green, that's between Hammersmith and Finsbury Park. There's no point looking on the overground section of the line, obviously, so the first point of call at the western end should be Earl's Court. Except no. The underground station's been part-modernised over the years, so there's not so much of the original decoration left. Bands of mauve tiles still loop overhead, and there's a row of toothpaste green along the top of the platform wall. But the signature patterns along the full length are long gone, replaced by white, so best not to start your architectural safari here.

Gloucester Road, on the other hand, oh yes. Here the tiles are a deep rich green, be that in rings overhead or in parallel stripes along the platform. The station name appears in big bold lettering, another key part of the waymarking strategy from 1906, because the London Underground roundel hadn't yet been invented. By modern standards it uses the wrong font, but hurrah for that - there's no forcible requirement to upgrade our heritage.

Gloucester Road doesn't boast the most exciting of the patterns down the line, but the design is bold. Only one colour has been used - there's no additional accent hue as elsewhere. And the design does have a pleasing symmetry, created as you can see by inserting fractional tiles in each row. This wasn't just thrown together, you know.

We're not stopping at South Kensington, because that's had a Natural History Museum makeover. And we're not stopping at Knightsbridge because that's gone 21st century silver.

But we are stopping at Hyde Park Corner. This is a lovely station, entirely below ground, with escalators leading passengers down to a circulation lobby between the two platforms. The connecting passages contain tiled signs directing passengers 'To the trains', either 'To Finsbury Park' or 'To Hammersmith'. Most endearing. The key colour on the platforms is brown, the sort of brown that DIY paint manufacturers might brand as chocolate or mahogany. Notice the colons which appear between each word of Hyde:Park:Corner - either a grammatical aberration or a fine decorative touch.

At this station the additional colour is yellow, a little wishy-washy perhaps, but in complete contrast to the dark green at Gloucester Road. The tiles cluster in groups of four, there's no need for fractions here. But not all of the pattern is visible. Advertising posters cover much of the platform wall, including most of the yellow pattern, but also (sad face) one of the station names.

Best ride past Green Park and Leicester Square, there are no Edwardian tiles down here. Inbetween is Piccadilly Circus, again new, but which has the best modern take on bright tiling simplicity.

Covent Garden is the heritage-tiled station that most visitors to London will have seen. As they pour off to visit the market above, they'll see stripes and hoops coloured caramel and custard. Delightful. But look closer and it's clear this isn't the original tiling, it's not even old. This is a 2008 makeover, completed to strict like-for-like guidelines, but almost too perfect. The lettering's the thing, it's got a computer-generatedness that the originals don't have, so the font is too sharp and a touch too thin. And where did the colon go?

At least the custardy yellow is brighter than at Hyde Park Corner. I like the pattern here too, it's a little more intricate than elsewhere, and with a greater expanse of blank space inbetween. Again the adverts get in the way a bit, so Dylan's view as he speeds through the platform isn't what it could be, but needs must.

Holborn's not tiled any more. But it does have two chipolata penises on the northbound platform, if you look carefully.

To Russell Square, with the most in-your-face of the surviving designs. This utilises a relatively complex chain-like pattern, laid out in a dark shade that might even be black. Surrounding this is a turquoise border, and then an intermediate stripe underlining below. These aren't the pastel shades we see at Leslie Green's other Piccadilly line stations, so is Russell Square the odd one out, or have all the other bold designs been replaced over the last century?

The turquoise stripes also continue up the stairs and round the passageway to the foot of the lift shaft. It's detail like this that helps make the London Underground the design triumph we know and love today. Even the sign pointing the way "To The Lifts & Stairs" is glazed inside a blue surround, with a comet-like arrow beneath and the flourish of an ampersand within. Next time you're waiting at a slightly lesser station, wish you were here.

If you can cope with the ill-advised presentational update that Flickr has inflicted on its users this week, you'll find 14 Piccadilly tile photos here. We'll continue north tomorrow.

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