One of the very finest experiences in the whole of the United Kingdom is to be found in Westminster, London, the location of the Houses of Parliament.
That experience is not the sight of our parliamentarians at work, I’m afraid. The experience to which I am referring is located just over the road, and several metres below ground level, in Westminster Underground Station. It is a trip between the surface and the westbound platform of the Jubilee Line. Either way, really, up or down, it doesn’t matter.
The station dates from 1999, and was designed by Hopkins Architects as part of the fabulous Jubilee Line Extension, that late Twentieth Century high water mark of London railway architecture. Actually, the top levels are a reconstruction, because the Circle and District Line platforms, just below ground level, originally opened in 1868. Underneath that is the deep level station constructed for the Jubilee Line Extension, and it’s the real highlight. It is, to be honest, a big box in the ground. But what a box.
It is one of the biggest holes ever to be dug in the ground in central London, and was constructed by firstly digging deep trenches for its walls. These were filled with concrete and then the box was excavated. A concrete ‘diagrid’ was built onto the side walls, leaving rectangular cells which have a rough finish at the back, where the concrete retains the marks of the earth into which it was poured. Great lateral braces run horizontally across the void from huge pillars, which are themselves braced diagonally against each other. The horizontal braces hold apart the walls of the station box and stop it collapsing inward. It’s mega engineering, and you can feel the weight of the earth being held back.
Between these engineering elements, banks of escalators, walkways and staircases criss-cross the space. Flows of passengers are carefully segregated from one another; you’re very aware when using one of the escalators that other passengers are taking slightly different routes through the station, at times almost close enough to touch but suddenly spirited away from you. You just don’t get the same experience in a more traditional underground station where escalators are contained within several different tunnelled shafts. At Westminster, the whole workings are available to view from the top to the bottom, all at once, exerting the same fascination as a skeleton watch ticking away.
One of the reasons for the depth of the box is that the Jubilee Line platforms are stacked above one another, eastbound over westbound, an arrangement made necessary to keep the tunnels as far away as possible from the tower of Big Ben, at the corner of the Houses of Parliament.
There is no decorative scheme to speak of within the station, just the drama of the engineering, picked out by a beautifully subtle and clever lighting scheme. The concrete is fair-faced and glittery (the concrete mix was specified to be so) and the light catches the structure of the station very effectively.
Architecture writer Kenneth Powell (2000, p19) reckons that Westminster station embodies the “supreme architectural expression” of the Jubilee Line Extension project, and I’d agree.
Read up about Westminster Underground station and you’ll soon come across the adjective Piranesian (even Hopkins uses it in its description of the project). At this point you’ll nod intelligently and say something like, “Oh yes, the drama of this unexpected structure on a heroic scale really does bring to mind Piranesi and his works.” And, like me, you’ll probably do this even though you have no idea who Piranesi was, or what he was doing designing Underground stations. Well, I know now, because I went and looked him up.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist who lived from 1720 to 1778. Although he produced a number of drawings of buildings, arguably those for which he is most famous are from his series depicting imaginery prisons. These fanastical structures feature staircases stacked above staircases, and looming machinery of unknown and unknowable purposes, glowering in the background. Here’s one:
I’m not sure that comparing your Underground station to a colossal (imaginary) prison is really the best way to sell it to London’s weary commuters, who often feel all too like the inmates of some Kafka-esque nightmare. Anyway, it wasn’t Piranesi or his works that came to mind the first time I saw Westminster Underground station. It was a different artist altogether, Dutchman Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), better known as M. C. Escher. His speciality was optical tricks and illusions, and his incredibly detailed pencil drawings feature complicated tesselations, transformations and dizzyingly vertiginous multiple perspectives. Impossible triangles, staircases that go up and down at the same time – nothing seemed to be beyond his artistic skills, no matter how befuddling they might be to the viewer.
His works are still under copyright, but if you click here, you’ll be taken to his work Relativity (1953). Now tell me that doesn’t look like an artist’s impression of Westminster Underground station…
I was also strongly reminded of director Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), which itself was more than a little Piranesian and Escher-like somewhere in its inspiration. I can imagine the Batman, perched in the shadows atop one of the pillars in the station box…
Westminster is really a station of two halves, one under the ground, and the other above, except that the top half is rarely seen by passengers. The construction of the Underground station was inextricably intertwined with the building on the surface of Portcullis House (also by Hopkins Architects). Portcullis House is an extension of the Houses of Parliament, on the other side of Westminster Bridge Road from Parliament itself, providing additional offices and meeting rooms for members of Parliament. The floor levels of early designs for what would eventually become Portcullis House were forever being complicated by the presence immediately underneath of the District/Circle Line platforms. The construction of the new Jubilee Line station allowed a radical reconstruction of the whole site, providing an opportunity to lower the District/Circle Line platforms. That in turn allowed Hopkins to insert a new ticket hall and concourse above those platforms and immediately below the ground floor of Portcullis House, itself now at a more practical level in relation to its immediate environs. Even so, it was still a squeeze, and the ticket hall/concourse level is the least satisfactory element of Westminster Underground station. Its ceiling is low, and feels like it. Were it not for the coffered ceiling which gives the impression of more headroom than there actually is, it would definitely be claustrophobic.
Six of the huge pillars which help create the great drama within the station box are in fact foundation piles reaching down from Portcullis House and extending right to the bottom of the Underground station. These huge columns, and the braces which run out from them across the station box, are key to the station’s layout; everything else is built round them. Above ground, concrete arches spring from the top of these columns to form the sides of a courtyard at the centre of Portcullis House. With a beautiful glass roof supported on a grid of steel and oak, this atrium is a meeting place for MPs, with water features and trees. In many respects, it feels like part of an ultra-refined Jubilee Line station, and it’s a fascinating example of what might have been if the Jubilee Line Extension stations had featured wood and planting schemes in their palette of construction materials, in addition to steel, glass and concrete. Unfortunately, Portcullis House is rarely seen by members of the British public, and is most easily accessible only on Open House weekends, although you can attend Select Committee meetings held there if you can get one of the available spaces. Photography isn’t exactly welcomed in the building either, so it’s not easy to illustrate, but this picture shows the reticent topside of the Underground station:
Here’s a final thought, and a question. Parliament is the supposed to be the seat of British democracy. Yet it’s extremely difficult to get into the Houses of Parliament or Portcullis House to watch proceedings. Spaces are limited, queues long, and the security checks interminable and tedious. But underneath Portcullis House is a genuinely brilliant architectural experience available to millions of travellers every year, and all you need to get into it is an Oyster card. So, which of Hopkins Architects’ two buildings, Portcullis House or Westminster Underground station, is actually the more democratic?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Hopkins Architects project page for Portcullis House, here
Hopkins Architects project page for Westminster Underground station, here
Powell, Kenneth, 2000, The Jubilee Line Extension. London: Laurence King Publishing
…and anything linked to in the text above.
How to find Westminster Underground station
Click here for the map