The Light Fantastic (Heron Quays station, Docklands Light Railway, London, UK)

Regular reader P.T. of Hereford and Worcestershire writes to suggest that I should take a look at the Docklands Light Railway in London. I’m nothing if not highly susceptible to suggestion, so let’s have a metro this week.

I love the DLR. I like sitting at the front of the (driverless, for those not familiar with the system) trains and pretending I’m the driver. Er…I mean I like taking my younger relatives to the front of the train and letting them pretend they’re the train driver. I like the way the DLR is a little network of lines in east London, like a tiny version of its big brother, the London Underground – except somehow more human in scale and more friendly. I like the way its metro technical standards mean it can have such tight curves and steep track gradients that it sometimes feels more like a roller coaster than a railway. Gliding between the shiny office buildings of Canary Wharf, looking out of the train and seeing it reflected in hundreds of different windows, broken up into a dynamic and transient mosaic, is quite spellbinding, especially on a sunny day.

But when it comes to beauty, the DLR isn’t the most immediately obvious of candidates. Many of its stations are a bit, well, ordinary. I don’t mean to be rude. Modular, to keep costs down, they do their job perfectly well, but as a result they’re not especially remarkable. Tower Gateway’s entrance boasts one of the most distinctive design elements on the system, but its domed entrance has, unfortunately, always reminded me of a giant bird cage.

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The entrance to Tower Gateway station (just after reopening from a rebuild in 2009). By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

As an exercise in contrast, when the Jubilee Line Extension opened in 1999, featuring stations like this:

Westminster Underground station on the Jubilee Line Extension © Daniel Wright 2013
Westminster Underground station on the Jubilee Line Extension © Daniel Wright 2013

…the DLR’s extension under the River Thames to Lewisham opened too. Its underground stations were a bit more prosaic:

Sunil060902 at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons
Cutty Sark DLR station, southbound platform. Sunil060902 at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

It works just fine, but the pale blue panelling does feel a bit, well, melamine. There’s a good argument to be made that the Jubilee Line Extension might have been brought home a bit cheaper had it followed the DLR’s philosophy of perfectly functional, but rather less dramatic, stations. On the other hand, I suspect that a hundred years into the future, when the expense of the Jubilee Line Extension has long since ceased to be of anything other than vague historical interest, passengers will still be enjoying its stations, just as we still enjoy London Underground stations like Cockfosters and Southgate today, long after anyone has stopped caring how much they cost to build.

In any case, although many DLR stations are rather workaday, some of them are of considerably more artistic merit than might be expected on ‘just’ a metro, and there are some delightful touches even at some of the less obviously pretty stations.

Did you know that the DLR has an art programme, just like its big brother London Underground, and that a principal artist was employed on the DLR’s extension to Stratford International station? I think I’ll leave those subjects for another time.

Have you seen the Transport for London roundel cycle racks at Stratford International DLR station itself? They’re a classic example of what this blog really wants to celebrate at heart, the making of the mundane in transport into something beautiful, with the application of just a little thought and design consideration:

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stratford International DLR station. Note the well-designed cycle racks on the right of the picture. By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But in particular, I’d like to take a look today at Heron Quays station.

One of the DLR’s most notable features is its extensive use of elevated sections of track. By their very nature the long viaducts which carry the tracks are visually intrusive. There are ways of making such infrastructure look more attractive (as these two excellent articles on The Gondola Project, expert on all things elevated, explain (here and here)) but it would be expensive to do on a network-wide basis across a system like the DLR. Quite a lot of the DLR’s elevated sections are, like many of its stations, functional but not necessarily beautiful:

Oxyman [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An elevated section of DLR track near the A1020 North Woolwich Road. By Oxyman [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the DLR’s stations are on these elevated sections, and in as much as they have a concourse, at such stations it is usually located under the tracks with stairs/escalators/lifts up to platform level. Concourse is a bit of a grand word. The place where the ticket machines are, is perhaps closer to the mark. Here’s Deptford Bridge:

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Deptford Bridge, by Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Some sections of the DLR’s elevated route have either been designed to be more elegant (like the bridges over the docks) or rebuilt to more attractive designs. Heron Quays station is one of the latter. It opened in 1987 as part of the original system, and was rebuilt in 2002 as part of a wider redevelopment of the surrounding buildings. The station is on a viaduct but is otherwise completely enclosed underneath the new office buildings. Who to call upon to design a station which is both up in the air, yet feels as though it is underground? The DLR made a wise choice in the shape of Will Alsop, and his Alsop Architects architecture practice. Alsop has featured before in this blog, failing to get his Fourth Grace built on the banks of the River Mersey in Liverpool. At Heron Quays he proved luckier.

Despite the fact that the station is contained within the new office block at Heron Quays, one of the constraints Alsop had to work within was that the station could have no physical connection to it (later, if the office building is removed/replaced/renewed, the station’s structural integrity will not be affected).

He ended up supporting the station on stilts (reminiscent of herons’ legs? Am I looking too hard?) which transfer the weight of the station to points on the ground which are located over basement columns. Under the tracks hangs a curved turquoise/green shell which offers acoustic protection from the noise of the trains on the tracks above, and brings the ceiling of the concourse under the station down to a very human level.

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Under the platforms at Heron Quays. By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Detailed with a plate-like effect, being under the acoustic baffle is a bit like standing under the belly of a dragon:

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Combatting the lack of light in the enclosed station location are uplighters and downlighters which send light bouncing off stainless steel panels on either side, and the various reflective coloured surfaces which accent other elements of the design. As Alsop explains, “a colour scheme was chosen to emphasise the independence of the architectural elements from their surroundings.” At platform level, deep blue light beams overhead spread light along the platforms as well as containing the technical gubbins for the station’s public address system.

By Sunil060902 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Heron Quays at night, with the light beam in action over platform 2. By Anon [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

More details, and further pictures, of Heron Quays are available on Alsop’s ALL Design website here. It’s a very distinctive station amongst the modular design elements which are repeated at most of the rest of the DLR’s stations. Heron Quays was Alsops‘s second London Transport station (after the extraordinary immersive experience which is North Greenwich London Underground station) and Alsop would be back again on the DLR in 2007, at Stratford Regional station.

And more on those, another time…

This entry was the result of a suggestion…

A reader suggested I take a look at the Docklands Light Railway (thank you!) for inclusion on this blog. So I did, and I did. I like getting suggestions and recommendations. If there’s something you think I should be covering on the beauty of transport, drop me a line: see the “contact the author” tab.

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