Could I persuade you to have a second look at Southgate Station on the London Underground?
Fans of transport architecture probably won’t need any introduction to the station, which is one of the most famous on the London Underground network. Yet many write ups of the station only tell half the story. So if you know it, but only know the Underground station, or if you’re new to this whole transport architecture thing (hello!), there’s more to Southgate than you might think at first.
Southgate is on the Piccadilly Line’s northern extension to Cockfosters (subject of an earlier entry), which features a number of stations designed by architect Charles Holden, after he and London Transport’s chief executive Frank Pick went on a tour of mainland Europe to see developments in Modernist architecture. All of the stations are great pieces of inter-war Modernism. Southgate itself opened in 1933.
Southgate is famous because it is completely round, and has a funny Art Deco spire on the top. It’s beautifully detailed too. The station name frieze runs right round and is illuminated, standing proud of the main building in what is effectively a very long, circular light box. At the bottom of the building, a Greek-inspired key pattern design runs below the windows.
Historic England, the statutory national heritage body seems a little taken aback at the amount of detailing that went into the exterior of the station, calling it “surprisingly complex”¹. I’m not surprised though, and neither will any other fans of Holden’s work be. Then again, most people don’t give a second thought to transport architecture and seem surprised that some of it is surprisingly good. The station has a Grade II* listing, the middle rank of England’s three levels of statutory protection afforded to important buildings.
One of the things that makes Southgate station so visually arresting is that its external walls are very largely glazed, and topped with a fully glazed run of clerestory windows. Subconsciously (maybe consciously, if you look for long enough), you worry that these external walls don’t appear to be strong enough to hold up the roof. They probably aren’t, but they don’t actually need to. The roof is supported, umbrella-style, by a central column which braces outwards at the ceiling. This arrangement lends further visual drama to the attractive circular ticket hall.
In the escalators down to the platforms, original bronze uplighters are fabulously stylish. Holden always regretted that the layout of escalator and lift shafts, platforms and interconnecting tunnels, were left to London Underground’s engineers. His input below ground level was limited to decoration. But what decoration.
The intervening years haven’t been particularly kind to Southgate station. When it opened, it looked almost unspeakably gorgeous (see a contemporary photo here). Since then, its appearance has been marred due to poor urban design in its surroundings. Safety railings along the edge of the road (you’ve got to protect the pedestrians from themselves, you know) and a profusion of bollards and road signs (you’ve got to protect drivers from not being able to work out how to drive) are amongst the most heinous transgressors. That’s the fault of the local highways authorities, but owner Transport for London could also have a quiet word with the retail units in the station, which have put up insensitive signage and litter the outside of the building with A-boards and the like. At night, the modern visual distractions are less, well, distracting, and the station regains some of its original cleanliness of line.
Southgate’s entrance building is only half the story though. You have to think of the place as the architectural equivalent of a carefully composed painting. In the foreground is the entrance building, but there’s more framing detail on either side, and there’s an important background too, without which the main station building would appear much less dramatic.
The framing on either side takes the form of two of the curious mushroom shelters which decorate the forecourts of several 1930s London Underground stations (see another example here). I still don’t know what they’re really for, but they look great, sporting huge London Underground roundels and topped off with a set of five pendant lights. They merit their own separate listing by Historic England, also at Grade II*.
The background is an important building in its own right. It’s a bus station that contains a row of shop units with bronzed fronts, matching finishes on the inside of the station entrance building. A gently curving two-storey Streamline Moderne building, it serves several bus stops. Like the station entrance building, it is finished in red brick. At each end it has a fabulous curved return, so typical of Streamline Moderne architecture. Originally, the curved western end of the bus station held a large waiting room lit by full height windows, from which passengers would have had an excellent view of approaching buses. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in use for bus passengers. The other end of the building is also rounded, but with slightly less drama.
Passengers can wait under cover at the bus station because the shop units it contains are set back, so there is a roof (which contains its original roof lights) over their heads. This covered area is supported by mosaic-tiled columns, and above is a clock which appears to be far too modern to be original, but apparently is. The buses-only roadway between the entrance building and the bus station is lit by eight well-preserved, not to mention utterly covetable, “hoop and ball” lighting columns, which Holden used at several of his stations on the Underground.
It’s an understated but immensely stylish building. Its gentle curve, which holds the circular entrance building within its embrace, along with its minimalist design, makes for the perfect backdrop to the more detailed entrance building. Rather than being set in front of a higgledy-piggledy mismatch of existing buildings, in the form of the bus station Holden built the perfect backdrop for his circular ticket office building; simple, plain and clean. Matching this aesthetic is the cut-out signage, much of which is original, employing London Transport’s calming but authoritative Johnston Sans.
Not only is the bus station a gorgeous building which perfectly complements the station entrance building, it is also important amongst Holden’s transport works. As far as I know (and I’m always willing to be proved wrong by readers with greater knowledge) this is Holden’s only bus station. When Pick’s London Transport built bus stations, it generally used other architects. Foremost amongst these was Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, which completed a number of coolly glamorous bus stations in the home counties around London for the Country Bus Services department (see here and here). Holden, meanwhile, was too busy designing Underground stations to do much in the way of bus stations, and indeed many Underground stations of the era were designed by other architects to the style that Pick and Holden had jointly developed; there was too much work for Holden on his own. As such, Southgate bus station is a rare example of Holden’s work in the field of bus transport. Just as the non-Holden Underground stations share a strong design sensibility with the ones he actually designed, so does Southgate bus station with the bus stations Wallis, Gilbert and Partners designed. And to see to Southgate as a whole to best effect, you’ll need to head on over to the London Transport Museum’s photo archive again, here.
You probably won’t be surprised to find that although Southgate station’s entrance building and the two mushroom shelters are listed at Grade II*, the bus station gets only a Grade II listing; the lowest of level of statutory protection Historic England can bestow. As usual, buses find themselves treated as second class citizens compared to the premier league of rail-based transportation, even when the building involved is that great rarity, a Charles Holden London Transport bus station.
How to find Southgate station / bus station
References and bibliography
¹ Historic England’s listing citation for Southgate Underground Station’s entrance building, here
Historic England’s listing citation for Southgate Underground Station’s flanking shelters, here
Historic England’s listing citation for Southgate Bus Station (though it doesn’t actually use the words “bus station”), here