It’s Big, But is it Clever? (Canary Wharf tube station, London, UK)

Canary Wharf station is often referred to as the flagship or highlight of London Underground’s 1999 Jubilee Line Extension, that collection of architectural wonders overseen by Roland Paoletti. It’s certainly the biggest, 300m long and 30m deep, as the big as any of the skyscrapers which surround it, if they were laid on their sides. Yet for all its size, and the fact that it gets featured on stamps, or that it’s comedian Dave Gorman’s favourite London building, it always leaves me cold.

I normally defer to no-one in my appreciation of the work of architects Foster+Partners – I’ve featured enough of the practice’s projects on these pages in the past. Yet I always want to be more impressed by Canary Wharf station than I actually am.

There are bits of it I really do admire. I love the glass canopy entrances – bigger, bolder, reinterpretations of the Fosteritos that give Bilbao the cohesive city-wide style that only a well-designed transport network can deliver. The smallest entrance is the most Fosterito-like:

Canary Wharf station, eastern entrance pavilion. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Canary Wharf station, eastern entrance pavilion. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The other two are much grander affairs, and quite spectacular pieces of engineering:

Canary Wharf station, western entrance. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Canary Wharf station, western entrance. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

I like the fact that the station was inserted into what was previously a water-filled basin, like some vast permanent drydock, just because of the sheer engineering ambition involved. The original plan was to reinstate water over the top, though that proved a step too far, so the station is instead largely hidden under a park, which I also love because it’s basically the only decent-sized green space in the area, and the local high-powered bankers have transport to thank for this tiny piece of natural civility where they can have their lunch and de-stress.

Once inside the station, the gullwing ceiling is brilliant, held aloft by seven massive columns, oval in cross-section rather than circular. On a huge scale, it refers back to the miniature gullwing ceiling in the platform waiting room at Loughton. I’ve never found out if it is a deliberate homage or not.

Canary Wharf station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Canary Wharf station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

But the rest of the station is just big. It’s so large, and cold, and aloof, that I feel no emotional response to it at all when I pass through. I don’t experience the dizzying excitement I feel when I ascend through Westminster station. I don’t gasp like I do at the Mozart-inspired big blue glass wall at Southwark. I don’t feel the zen-like chills that the super-sized flotation tank of North Greenwich provides. I just think, oh this is big. Because it is. But that’s all.

I’ll cheerfully admit I may well be alone in this reaction. After all, I don’t like Routemaster buses, GNER, or slam door trains, so what do I know?

Others, meanwhile, have been much more positive. Newspaper The Observer said the station provided “an almost religious experience”, like “a cross between Canterbury cathedral and the set of Aliens“. Maybe the latter, but hardly the former. It has the size for it, but no cathedral worth its salt has columns running down the middle. No, for all its much more diminutive stature, Cockfosters station has the nave-and-side-aisles form which makes it the perfect little Modernist cathedral of transport.

There are other details at Canary Wharf station that most passengers might not notice. Large sections of the walls are false, hiding service corridors behind and allowing a lot of regular station maintenance to be done invisibly to station users. The London Underground roundels at platform level are the largest on the network at a whole metre in diameter, a fitting detail for this super-sized station cavern. Ovenden (2013) says they’re the smartest on the system, though again I disagree. Their huge size robs them of the finesse of some of their smaller cousins on the JLE, and their solid middles aren’t as interesting as the hollow versions to be found at North Greenwich, for instance.

Roundels on the platform at Canary Wharf. Photo by London Moving [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Roundels on the platform at Canary Wharf. Photo by London Moving [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Perhaps, I realise as I’m writing, the reason I find it so hard to love Canary Wharf station is that the whole area is so damnably difficult to navigate on public transport. The difficulty of interchanging between the various railway lines there (and don’t even get me started on the confusing bus routeings and the miles-away Riverbus pier) annoys me because we ought by now to be able to do so much better. You’d think we would have managed the trick of integrating stations in massive new developments by the end of the 20th Century. Canary Wharf is the location that proves we haven’t.

The first Canary Wharf station was opened in 1991 on the Docklands Light Railway. Although planned for, it wasn’t there when the DLR opened in 1987, because it was already clear just how big the development of new offices at Canary Wharf was going to be. A much larger station than originally expected was required. In fact, the demand generated by the new offices was so big it quickly became clear that the DLR wouldn’t be able to serve Canary Wharf’s commuter flows on its own. The Jubilee Line Extension was built partly to serve that need (it had a worse benefit:cost ratio than rival schemes at the time, but Canary Wharf’s developers offered a bung and that’s how big transport projects sometimes get authorised).

Yet Canary Wharf Jubilee line station doesn’t connect with the DLR Canary Wharf station at all; the DLR’s Heron Quays station is closer. There is an indirect connection between the two Canary Wharf stations via a shopping arcade underneath the skyscrapers, but that’s about as convenient and attractive a walking route as it sounds.

Now, to compound the problems, the new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf is pretty well complete, despite it being a couple of years before trains start running through it (it’s complicated, I’ll explain another time). But that station is off to the north, on the other side of the DLR station to the Jubilee line station, and it doesn’t connect directly with the two earlier stations, either.

I guess piecemeal development is piecemeal development, whether it happens over a century and a half, or a couple of decades. It does feel like a missed opportunity though.

One of the most famous views of Canary Wharf station is the bank of escalators leading up to the western entrance, so I'd better include one. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
One of the most famous views of Canary Wharf station is the bank of escalators leading up to the western entrance, so I’d better include one. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Let’s finish on a good news story though, and a striking illustration of the impact Canary Wharf station’s architecture is about to have on popular culture. It might not be my favourite station, but when the location scouts for this year’s Star Wars movie, Rogue One, were looking for a futuristic background, Canary Wharf fitted the bill.

In the small overlap between Star Wars fans and transport architecture fans, there was instant recognition that the space station or rebel base or whatever it turns out to be when the film is released, at 1:11 in the following trailer, was an efficiently redressed Canary Wharf station. That must have been quite a job on an overnight shoot with a limited window of opportunity before the trains started running again the next morning.

It’s far from unknown for Underground stations to appear on screen, with Waterloo (Sliding Doors), and the disused platforms at Charing Cross (Skyfall) and Aldwych (V for Vendetta and Sherlock, to name but a few) being the most commonly used. But until now they have portrayed Underground stations. This is, as far as I know, the first time an Underground station has stood in for a location in a galaxy far, far away…

Further Reading and Bibliography

Ovenden, Mark (2013): London Underground by Design. Penguin Books: London

Foster+Partners’ project page for Canary Wharf station, here

How to find Canary Wharf station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

2 thoughts on “It’s Big, But is it Clever? (Canary Wharf tube station, London, UK)

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