Nige admires the work of Charles Holden, the architect behind London’s finest Underground stations…

That is not a newly landed art deco UFO above – it is Southgate Underground station, towards the end of the Cockfosters branch of the Piccadilly Line. I discovered this part of north London/ Hertfordshire last year, when visiting the extensive grounds of Trent Park, a handsome Georgian mansion – once the home of Philip Sassoon, cousin of Siegfried – with gardens (including a beautiful Japanese garden), parkland, avenues and woods around it, not to mention a grand obelisk for an eyecatcher.

Trent Park alone would have been worth the trip and made a thoroughly enjoyable day out – but this part of the country also has some of the most extraordinary Underground stations ever built. They are the creations of the modernist Charles Holden, working for the great Frank Pick, who, as head of London Transport, was perhaps the most effective, discerning and influential patron of art and design this country had in the 20th century.

The Holden stations are small masterpieces, ingeniously and elegantly designed for their purpose, using simple shapes and plain surfaces and integrating every element of the design – lighting, seating, tiling, even litterbins – into one harmonious, enjoyable whole. They are modernism at its least forbidding and most friendly. Southgate is almost playful – especially when lit up at night, as in the picture, with its art deco patterns and strange topknot like a Tesla coil – but it is also a wonderfully clever construction, with the whole roof supported, umbrella-like, from a single central column.

Happily, almost nothing of its original charm has been lost over the years, and it was sensitively restored a couple of years ago. If only all London Underground stations were designed to this standard, with this flair, it would be a pleasure to use the Tube – apart from riding on the actual trains, that is; for all their pleasing remnants of golden age styling, those Piccadilly Line trains can never be fun (especially for someone my height).


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  1. James Hamilton on Monday 17, 2011

    Just beautiful images, and nthing comments about the Piccadilly Line: I used to walk rather than suffer any journey of any length upon it during rush hour, and I count myself a tube enthusiast.

    What Southgate goes to show is that the model around which pre-War London Transport was built should have been the model for all of the nationalized industries. Collective endeavour, but it also gave room for individual genius to thrive – not just Holden’s, of course, because this era also gave birth to the Beck map, the 1938 Bakerloo stock that is still the inspiration for new tube trains today, and all those fabulous LT posters. And the HQ in St James’s, with the Eric Gill sculptures, and, and, and.

    Some of the new Jubilee Line stations are pretty special too, but building on greenfield sites give Holden an uncloseable advantage. Southgate will always be the cream of the crop.

  2. Kathy Williams on Monday 17, 2011

    As a young man, my husband was in the habit of staying out late with his colleagues at work (our marriage was in its early years and his bachelor ways of thinking persisted for some while). He would catch the last train on the Piccadilly line heading northwards, inevitably fall asleep, and miss his Finsbury Park get-off. I would get a phone call late at night: “I’m at Arnos Grove/Southgate/Oakwood/Cockfosters and there are no more trains tonight. Can you come and get me?” I got to know these stations very well indeed; Southgate was my favoured pick-up-husband-worse-for-wear point although I was rather fond of Arnos Grove too.

    He doesn’t stay out late at all nowadays although I rather wish he would.

  3. Gaw on Monday 17, 2011

    I would have sworn the photo of the escalators was from the Moscow Metro.

    James, agree about the Jubilee. The recently built or refurbished Overground stations in East London are very good too.

  4. Nige on Monday 17, 2011

    There’s an old joke which builds up to the young lady in the crowded Tube train inquiring ‘Is this Cockfosters?’ I forget the answer, but I’m sure it’s a real rib-tickler… Anyone?

    • Brit on Monday 17, 2011

      Lady on a jam-packed train reaches a blacked-out station and asks “Is this Cockfosters?” To which the gentleman on whose knee she is parked replies “No Madam it’s mine. Does it matter?”

      Max Miller, apparently.

  5. Philip Wilkinson on Monday 17, 2011

    Lovely photographs. These stations are wonderful. They do it all, architecturally: strong exteriors that stand out out without sticking out like sore thumbs, illumination that makes them easy to find at night, elegant interiors that effortlessly direct you to where you want to go, good details from signage to light fittings. I don’t think Holden did anything as good afterwards.

  6. zmkc on Monday 17, 2011

    I think I got off at Arnos Grove by mistake once and saw a small (but permanent?) exhibition about Charles Holden in the station there, should anyone want to plunge more deeply into his life and work. Of course, it’s a long way to go if I’m mistaken about which station I mistakenly got off at.