Alone amongst the fifty shades of grey of the other stations on London Underground’s Jubilee Line extension, North Greenwich station is vivid in cobalt blue. There’s an eerie calm on the platforms, partly because the station just isn’t as busy as you might expect, and partly because its deep blue decoration seems to suck in the light, noise, chaos and bustle that marks out a typical London Underground station. It’s the flotation tank of the Underground network, a becalmed underwater cave, a place to lose yourself to thoughts of your place in the midst of a vast, unknowable universe.
Like the rest of the Jubilee Line Extension it opened in 1999. It had a unique role to play by helping to regenerate the polluted wasteland which comprised the North Greenwich peninsula, previously notable for little other than Terry Farrell’s ventilation shaft for the the Blackwall Tunnel. The end of the Millennium was a time for introspection, examination and celebration, and the government of the day marked it with a huge exhibition in a new dome in North Greenwich dedicated to just those things. Thus was the case for a North Greenwich station on the Jubilee Line Extension made.
Some thought was given to building the station in an open trench, leaving it open to the sky in the same manner as Stratford International would later be built on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Luckily, the decision was changed in favour of constructing a roof over the North Greenwich station box, to allow for future construction on the North Greenwich site. That saved North Greenwich from being the sort of soulless chasm you can now find at Stratford International, and allowed instead for a comprehensive and striking decorative scheme.
It’s easy to find the entrance for North Greenwich station because it doesn’t really have an entrance of its own. The stairs and escalators down into the station are contained within a huge crescent-shaped bus station by Foster & Partners.
The station below, however, is the work of Will Alsop as lead architect at architecture practice Alsop, Lyall and Störmer, commissioned (as were the architecture firms at all the other stations) by Jubilee Line Extension architect in charge Roland Paoletti. Like several of the other stations on the Jubilee Line Extension, North Greenwich is basically a big hollow box in the ground, but its high-tech details and decoration elevate it into something which comes close to a conceptual work of art.
The main concourse is at an upper level, above the platforms. Unlike Canary Wharf, where a floor runs across the full width of the station box at the upper level, North Greenwich features a suspended concourse, hung from the ceiling, and not running the full width. You can look over the edge down to the platforms below, and admire a full height wall of blue glass at the edge of the station.
The underside of the concourse itself is curved. There’s a very mundane reason for this; it contains a smoke duct and services for the station. The practical result is far from mundane, however, and it hovers like the belly of a great whale above the heads of passengers below, a techno-recreation of the great hall of a natural history museum. If you think something about the shape is familiar, you’d be right. Alsop used it again at Heron Quays Docklands Light Railway station three years later, designed by his later company Alsop Architects.
The most obvious artistic element of North Greenwich station is its use of colour, the dark blue of the London Underground roundel. It is the only station on the Jubilee Line Extension where such a degree of colour can be found. Only Southwark station’s intermediate concourse with its great curved glass wall has anything to compete. There’s a coloured glass wall at North Greenwich too, but this time lit from behind. The wall of cobalt blue glass results in a sense that the boundary of the station isn’t strictly delineated, but fades off at the edge. Alsop describes the sensation of the station as “objects floating in a great void” (Powell (2013): p113).
The underside of the suspended concourse is finished in blue, as are the columns, arranged in V-angled pairs and covered in mosaic tiles, which support the roof of the station. Small stripes of red (the other colour in the London Underground roundel) help make the columns more visible for passengers who are partially sighted. Many of the walls in the station are also covered in the same mosaic tiles. Because they are each angled slightly differently, they glitter subtly as you move around the station.
North Greenwich station was incredibly busy during its first year of operation, serving passengers on their way to or from the Millennium Dome exhibition. After that, usage dropped off substantially while the dome was converted to its new role as entertainment venue The O2. As the local area continues to be regenerated and new buildings constructed, passenger numbers are slowly building up again.
North Greenwich station is uniquely spacious. It has three platforms rather than the two at other stations on the extension. Trains can be reversed there, handy during engineering works or at times of disruption. Another reason is that North Greenwich is the site of a junction on the Jubilee Line Extension, constructed but not fitted out, to allow for a future branch to the Royal Docks. It’s a project everyone seems to have forgotten about, and the central section of the Jubilee Line is now so busy that the chances of the extension ever being built are remote; the line has quite enough to do serving its existing route without adding in extra trains and additional passengers. It’s always the way with London railways. The extensions you want to build never have the convenient infrastructure ready to facilitate them, and you never end up wanting to build the extensions you’ve facilitated in advance.
Denis Tunnicliffe, London Underground’s managing director at the time of the Jubilee Line Extension’s construction, wasn’t convinced about this blue hall of existential wonder, thinking the acres of deep colour in the station were “over the top” but Paoletti was right behind Alsop.
The Jubilee Line is named for the present British queen’s silver jubilee, with which the opening of the first part of the line more-or-less coincided. That’s why it’s grey-coloured on the London Underground map; the closest print colour to silver available. Thanks to Roland Paoletti and Will Alsop, North Greenwich is a sparkling sapphire set in the midst of all that silver.
How to find North Greenwich London Underground station
Bibliography and further reading
Powell, Kenneth (2000): Jubilee Line Extension, The. Laurence King: London.
Ovenden, Mark (2013): London Underground by Design. Particular Books: London
North Greenwich station project webpage at ALL Design, Will Alsop’s current company, here