A Night at the Opera (Southwark Underground station, London, UK)

Salzburg-born composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) hasn’t featured very often in entries on this blog. At all, to be strictly accurate. And he probably won’t again. Living before the age of mass public transport rather limits his opportunities.  The prolific composer is famous for his chamber music, orchestral works and operas, and has given rise to an entire sub-type of chocolate treat (the Mozartkugel and its derivatives; I strongly recommend the silver ones over the more common gold variety).

A chocolate shop full of Mozart-inspired chocolates, in Salzburg, Austria. © Daniel Wright 2007
A chocolate shop full of Mozart-inspired chocolates, in Salzburg, Austria. © Daniel Wright 2007

But Mozart fans who are also interested in public transport (it’s a small crossover market, I grant you) can take heart that he is indirectly memorialised in the world of transport, via his opera The Magic Flute.

First performed in 1791, The Magic Flute (or to give it its native title Die Zauberflöte) is arguably Mozart’s most popular opera. It’s my favourite, anyway. While The Marriage of Figaro runs it close in the popularity stakes, The Magic Flute pips it in my estimation, on the grounds of its sheer strangeness. There’s a bird-man. There’s a magical flute. There’s a magician. It might all be a commentary on, or guide to, Freemasonry. Or Zoroastrianism. No-one seems able to say for certain.

It can also boast one of the opera world’s most recognisable set designs. Created by Prussian architect/city planner/stage designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) for the 1816 performance of The Magic Flute , the most famous piece of the set design is the star-spangled backdrop for the Queen of the Night (did I not mention there’s a Queen of the Night too? sorry…), featuring a dome of stars on an ultramarine background. It’s frequently used even in modern stagings of the opera.

And this is where an experience every bit as perplexing as trying to decode the real meaning of The Magic Flute – travelling on the London Underground – enters the story.

When the London Underground’s Jubilee Line Extension from Green Park to Stratford was being planned in the early 1990s, Roland Paoletti was appointed to oversee the line’s overall artistic and architectural vision as chief architect. This he achieved with aplomb. Many of the best architectural practices London Underground could get its hands on were brought in to design the stations, and Paoletti ensured that while there was a commonality of approach across them, they still remained statements of those practices’ individual styles. They range from Norman Foster’s vast (and for me emotionally aloof) cavern at Canary Wharf, through Alsop, Lyall and Störmer’s undersea world at North Greenwich, to the Fritz Lang-esque technological dystopia at Westminster by Hopkins Architects. But it is at one of the line’s smallest stations, Southwark, that one of the most arresting architectural experiences can be found.

Travelling up the escalators from the station platforms, passengers enter an intermediate concourse, where a huge crescent-shaped skylight allows natural light to penetrate the station during daylight hours. In front of them is a 40m-wide curved wall stretching 16m from floor to skylight, made up of hundreds of triangular pieces of deep blue glass. It’s as dramatic and unexpected as any sight on the London Underground.

And as Mark Ovenden in London Underground by Design (Penguin, 2013) mentions in passing, Sir Richard MacCormac of MJP Architects based it on Schinkel’s set design for The Magic Flute. That’s the kind of throwaway comment on which the beauty of transport thrives. And here, to prove the point are two images which show the connection.

First up, Schinkel’s set design for The Magic Flute:

Karl Friedrich Schinkel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The arrival of the Queen of the Night. Stage set by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) for an 1815 production, currently at Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Staatliche Museen Berlin. Karl Friedrich Schinkel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s Southwark Underground station’s blue glass wall:

The lightwell and blue glass wall at Southark Underground station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013
The lightwell and blue glass wall at Southark Underground station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013

It’s not easy to take a photo of the lightwell. It’s very large, and Photoshop has trouble stitching together a panorama accurately because of the repeating patterns. Hopefully, the image above is good enough to give the general idea. The triangular glass panels are attached at each corner with silver bolts which, grouped together, make little star shapes on the wall, just like Schinkel’s set design, an effect which you can see better in the following photo:

Detail of the blue glass wall at Southwark Underground station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013
Detail of the blue glass wall at Southwark Underground station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013

There’s an even better way of exploring the lightwell, via a 360° panorama at 360cities, here.

MJP Architects says, “The wall was designed by MJP, in collaboration with artist Alex Beleschenko and structural engineers YRM/Anthony Hunt and is a unique result of co-operating disciplines of art and science. The wall is 40m long and 16m high, consisting of 630 triangular panes of blue, enamelled glass held on stainless steel spiders designed to withstand the wind forces generated by the trains in the tunnels.

“This cone wall describes and animates light passing across its surface. A pattern of blue lines, drawn at different angles and of varying widths and tones creates a gradation of sparkling light in the upper area, changing to richness of colour in the lower area.” There’s more detail and lots of lovely photos on the Southwark station page of MJP Architect’s website.

Meanwhile, glass artist Alexander Beleschenko (by which I mean his artistic medium is glass, not that he’s an artist made of glass) confirms the Mozart link by explaining: “The blue wall is made in the image of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s painting of the Queen of the Night for Mozart’s Magic Flute in which she stands in the lee of a planetarium sky dotted with a grid of stars”. You can read more and see lots of nice detail photos of the wall on his website.

So there you are. That’s how an 18th Century opera by Mozart ended up influencing the journeys of the millions of London Underground passengers who use Southwark station each year.

It would be remiss of me to write about Southwark Underground station without mentioning that the rest of it is also full of architectural interest, thanks to MJP Architects’ hard work. I especially like the lower concourse, between the two platforms, with the giant lighting beacons which split the staircases:

Southwark tube station, lower concourse. © Daniel Wright 2013
Southwark tube station, lower concourse. © Daniel Wright 2013

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