With this new book, prolific London history author David Long returns to the London Underground (an earlier work, The Little Book of the London Underground (2009), is a compendium of interesting facts, stories and statistics about the network).
This is the first book on the topic which I have read that focuses purely on the aesthetics of the system. Except in passing, you will find very little in this book about engineering, trains, timetables and the like. It is – as the title suggests – all about architecture and design. We learn about the two main architects of the 1900s and 1930s generations of stations, Leslie Green and Charles Holden respectively. We find out how the Underground’s “target” logo came into being. We read all about Edward Johnston, the typographer who devised the ubiquitous typeface on all Underground signage. And, of course, the draftsman Harry Beck, who gave not only London but most city transit systems worldwide the method of creating an easily understandable, diagrammatic map.
We Londoners like to grumble about the Tube. Despite its faults, most of us secretly love it and are proud of it; in our hearts we know it is a wonderful system. For despite its complexity, it is easy to understand and use. The credit for this goes to a handful of architects and designers who did their work almost a century ago. And at their centre was one man, the hero of the book: Frank Pick.
Pick was not an artist, a designer or an architect. He was, in fact, an administrator who rose through the ranks. But he had an instinct for talent-spotting and knowing what needed to be done. In the early decades of the 20th Century the tube system, comprising various different railway companies with different cultures and modi operandi were integrated into one unified organisation. Operationally, this was a challenge. But equally important was how this was presented to the public, how it was sold, how confidence in the system was built.
More than any marketing man or advertising guru, Pick understood the value of branding. It was he who set the standard for buildings, signage, advertising and posters – ensuring compliance and attention to detail to the nth degree. The result could have been disastrous except in the hands of a man of taste and discernment with natural empathy for the age, a man both of his time and ahead of it. The result is that London’s urban transport system – including our red buses, of course – is one of the most recognisable brands on the planet. This book tells the story.
London Underground is richly illustrated with hitherto unseen 1970s black and white photographs by Jane Magarigal which provide a nice nostalgic touch for those of us who wish the Tube still looked like it used to.
London Underground. Architecture, Design and History is published by the History Press. List price is £18.99, but available for around £13.00.