Shaft! 6 – Shaft Goes Stylish (Jubilee Line Ventilation Shafts, London, UK)

London Underground’s 1999 Jubilee Line Extension is often compared to the network’s previous architectural highpoint, the partnership of London Transport chief executive Frank Pick and his favourite architect Charles Holden. They were responsible for Modernist stations, not to mention transport design classics, at locations including Southgate, Cockfosters and Uxbridge, and the Underground’s headquarters 55 Broadway.

However, the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) between Green Park and Stratford is actually a far more complete piece of design. Holden always regretted that he had little influence on the layout of Underground stations below street level. This was left to the engineers, and resulted in the typical twisty tunnels linking platforms to lifts or escalators. Holden’s input here was decorative.

On the JLE, architects and engineers worked together all the way down from the entrances of its stations to the platforms of its trains. Chief architect Roland Paoletti oversaw the project as a whole, while London Underground chief executive Denis Tunnicliffe displayed a remarkable level of faith, and allowed him to get on with it. It was the most successful design partnership on London Underground since Pick and Holden, and it hasn’t been bettered since. The result was some of the most interesting architecture and engineering on the London Underground, arguably in London, and it spreads beyond the stations themselves to incorporate the JLE’s auxiliary structures.

Largely unrecognised, because they are not encountered by Underground passengers in the same way as the JLE’s stations, the surface buildings for its ventilation shafts (which sometimes also double as emergency exits) were treated as architectural opportunities in their own right. Because they often come to the surface in residential locations on quiet streets, or in parks, their successful execution is arguably even more difficult than for a station on a busy thoroughfare, where change is more expected.

At this point, however, I need to take a short diversion. The ventilation shafts were designed in the last century, at a time when making such buildings eye-catching was considered worthwhile as part of the JLE’s overall architectural effort. Today, however, Transport for London is rather less keen to draw attention to its ventilation shafts. The July 2005 bombings on London Underground trains and a London bus have made TfL very wary about security on its network, and ventilation/escape shafts (while essential for, well, ventilation and escape) might also represent an opportunity for unauthorised access the Underground network.

In 2011 one correspondent requested a list of London Underground’s ventilation shafts from TfL through the Freedom of Information Act, and they were turned down. At first TfL said, “We do not have a definitive list of these assets available. Due to the extensive history of the Underground’s development, information is simply not available for many of the older lines.”  The requester of the information then pointed out that this wasn’t very likely, and besides the information was already widely available in a variety of other sources (books, planning applications, maps on the web, meeting notes of none other than TfL’s own Board covering projects like Cooling the Tube, and so on). TfL then admitted that it did know where its London Underground ventilation shafts were (thank goodness) but it didn’t want to say because “releasing a single list of all intervention and mid-tunnel ventilation points would be prejudicial to national security and public safety”.

Now, as TfL also admitted at the same time, most of the information about where the shafts are, was and is available via other sources, and failing that you only have to walk the streets of London to come across many of them even if you’re not trying. If TfL doesn’t want people to know where/what these buildings are, perhaps it should consider not covering them in signage written in TfL’s distinctive New Johnston typeface (just a thought). So we’re really only talking about the fattest, laziest terrorists being defeated by failing to detail where the ventilation shafts are.

Nevertheless, in the interests of responsibility towards the transport industry, I will refrain from identifying precisely where the ventilation shafts in this article are located. I’m sure (though I have no particular knowledge) that TfL also has top-notch security systems at points of access to its network, so any would-be terrorist would be well advised not to bother with them anyway.

The ventilation shafts for the JLE at its western end are well hidden, given that they are in historic areas near Royal Parks or the Houses of Parliament, so there’s little to see there. However, on the middle section of the JLE, things get more interesting. Most of the shaft buildings on this section were designed by Ian Ritchie Architects. They are a brilliant collection and worthy winner of several awards. Let’s start with this one:

A ventilation shaft in the locality of Bermondsey tube station

Bang in the middle of a residential area, this shaft surfaced in a tiny plot of land amongst garages belonging to the nearby flats. The new shaft building therefore incorporated replacement garages (out of sight on the other side), a landscaped garden, and a curved concrete surface building which incorporates planting to soften its already gentle curves. It blends seamlessly into its local environment and has created a genuinely attractive area that retains its car parking function too.

In a rather different environment, that of a small park, this ventilation shaft building is of a quite different but very appropriate design:

A ventilation shaft in the region of Canada Water station, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects

Covered in copper panels formed into layered curves, this building is intended to represent the powerful swirl of wind which flows through it, thanks to the Jubilee Line trains rushing below. The copper cladding has weathered to a delightful mottled green due to Verdigris, and in autumn, with leaves blowing around the park and catching in eddies in the wind, how much more sympathetic a building could you possibly design?

This next shaft building is one of two of near identical design:

A ventilation shaft by Ian Ritchie Architects in the Rotherhithe area

What is so clever about the design is that one of the buildings is in a green, edge-of-park environment, and the other is in the Canary Wharf area, in a much harder urban high-tech environment. Yet the buildings look perfectly at home in both sorts of surroundings. Mostly constructed of concrete, they also feature a domed roof made of metal mesh. They’re tough and modern, at the same time as recalling something ancient and rock-like, which is why they’re so adaptable to different environs.

Another edge-of-park environment is the setting for this next ventilation shaft building, which erupts from the ground like a tor on one of the moors of the south-west of England, a simile given further weight by the treatment of the concrete which exposes the black basalt aggregate it contains. That said, its curving façade, split in two, also reminds me of the helmets worn by the gunners on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV (not the first time British rail transport and Star Wars have resembled each other; Gatwick Express’s Class 460 trains were nicknamed ‘Darth Vaders’ because of their perceived resemblance to his headgear).

Ventilation shaft building in the Rotherhithe area. Photo by Jim Linwood [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Ventilation shaft building in the Rotherhithe area. Photo by Jim Linwood [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

It’s the last of Ian Ritchie Architects’ ventilation shaft buildings for the JLE, but not quite the end of the story. There’s another interesting ventilation shaft building for the JLE east of Canary Wharf, which looks like a sprung-apart telescope dome, or the late 1980s Tomorrow’s World logo, for those who remember such details. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to see clearly and I can’t find any photos of it either. So I’ll conclude by looking at one final ventilation shaft building, near North Greenwich station. The Underground station was designed by Alsop, Lyall and Störmer, while the bus station on the surface was designed by Foster and Partners, so it is possible one of those two are responsible for it, or it might have been an in-house London Underground design. Either way, it is dramatic and monumental, perfect for the hyperbolic surroundings of North Greenwich, the self-declared heart of the new Millennium.

Ventilation shaft building near North Greenwich station, via Google

It would be nice to think that the ongoing construction of Crossrail, the east-west link under London, will lead to another set of visually interesting ventilation shaft buildings that engage with their immediate environment. Unfortunately, taking into consideration the largely dull buildings on High Speed 1 and its tunnel under London, it is increasingly apparent that the JLE was something of a one-off. While most of us looked at the JLE and saw brilliant designs which would grant an architectural legacy to London – ventilation shaft buildings and stations alike – the bean counters in the Treasury saw only opportunities for cost avoidance which had been ignored in favour of profligate exhibitionism. They have long memories, these people, and they have made sure through its funding settlement that Crossrail’s buildings will be far more mundane, or ‘cost-effective and value for money’ as they would probably put it (see articles on this subject here and here). Thanks to penny-pinching on architecture, and TfL’s reluctance to admit to the locations of the Underground’s ventilation shafts, we won’t see the like of the JLE’s collection of shaft buildings again for a long, long time.

Further Reading

Ian Ritchie Architects project page for the Jubilee Line vents and escape shafts, here

Powell, Kenneth, 2000, The Jubilee Line Extension. London: Laurence King Publishing


2 thoughts on “Shaft! 6 – Shaft Goes Stylish (Jubilee Line Ventilation Shafts, London, UK)

  1. The Victoria Line ventilation shaft in Gibson Square is the best building in the square, I think by Raymond Erith.

    1. Yes – in fact pretty much the only architectural element of any interest on the Victoria Line. Its station tile identifiers are perhaps the only other piece of design on the line worth dwelling over.

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