“The Railway in a Bathroom”: on the design of London’s Victoria line at 50

The platforms at Oxfird Circus, c1968. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

In the middle of the afternoon of 1 September 1968, London’s Victoria Line opened its doors to its first passengers – quietly, and without a ceremony. It was London’s first new underground railway line in over 50 years: the last had been the Central Line, opened in 1907 at the tail-end of the city’s second boom in underground railway building.

Construction of the Victoria Line had started in 1962, and services on the line opened in phases: first from Walthamstow to Highbury in September 1968, to Warren Street in December 1968, to Victoria in 1969 and finally to Brixton in 1971. On 7 March 1969, Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the line from Walthamstow to Victoria.

The Victoria line was the first London Underground line to actually be completely underground. (Despite what the London Underground brand suggests, roughly 55 per cent of the network is overground.) The Victoria Line was also the first Underground line to be planned and built by government: older Underground lines had been planned and built by private companies. London Transport chief architect Kenneth Seymour designed the Victoria Line in-house alongside London Underground engineers, with design input from architect Sir Misha Black OBE and his consultancy Design Research Unit.

A 1960s tube map, showing the planned Victoria line. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber. 

As the line was wholly underground, the Victoria Line look was limited to ticket halls and platforms. The only exception is Blackhorse Road, the only new above ground station building on the line. Shades of grey dominate the design: concrete flooring, grey ceramic tiles and brushed stainless steel.

At some stations the grey six inch square tiles are substituted for mildly warmer shades of cream. Overall, however, the look is “bathroom tiles, basically,” author Andrew Martin concludes in his book Underground Overground: a Passenger’s History of the Tube. The six inch square tiles lead Martin to dub the Victoria line “the railway in a bathroom”.

The highlights lie in the unique designs on tile panels in the platform seat recess. The design at each station was to be an image with local significance: a silhouette of Queen Victoria at Victoria station, a black horse at Blackhorse Road, and “a ton of bricks”, as a play on the name Brixton.


At other stations the link between the art work and station is less clear.  “The designers seem to have been hard-pressed to find any,” Martin remarks in his book. “The one at Warren Street shows a maze – a type of warren, you see. The one at Stockwell shows a swan, the name of a nearby pub, evidently. The one at Euston shows the Euston Arch, which had just been knocked down.” All the same, the art added a “touch of interest and humanity to the rather severe platforms” as a pamphlet introducing the Victoria line in 1969 read.

On its opening, the Observer called it ‘extraordinarily bleak’, and added that the Victoria line had all the charm of a 1960s’ tower block. The “lavatorial style” stations were lit by modern but clinical fluorescent tubes – something that had been praised in the 1950s plans as efficient and effective.

However, architect Sir Misha Black defended the Victoria line: “The stations may be criticised for appearing visually unexciting, but we consider that preferable to a transient popularity without lasting qualities.” The guiding principle was function, not form.

The new stations are bright, modern and designed for getting you to and away from the trains with the least possible fuss and delay,” a station pamphlet on the new Victoria Line dating from 1969 reads. The route was designed to link up the patchwork of Underground lines London had inherited to create a well-connected network. To achieve this, the Victoria line’s route was planned so that it would intersect with all other Underground lines: each station was planned to offer passengers interchange with either another London Underground or a national railway line.

The only exception is Pimlico, a late addition to the plans, made when the Crown Estate offered a site for the station (good bit of pub-quiz trivia, that). Bus stations were also located at stations such as Walthamstow and Blackhorse Road to ease inter-modal interchange

“Spacious stations designed for easy interchange and passenger movement between platform and street, based on research into passenger flow,” a station pamphlet from 1968 states “Escalators will lead direct to platform level wherever possible. Closed-circuit television equipment at stations to assist in controlling and speeding-up the movement of passengers at peak hours.”

A plan of the redesigned Oxford Circus station. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

A key design feature to ease interchange and reduce passenger flow through the station was co-locating the northbound (or southbound) platforms of two lines. For example, at Oxford Circus the station was re-designed, so that the northbound Victoria and Bakerloo lines were adjacent to each other. This offers passengers a quick same-level interchange. The installation of escalators speeded up passenger flow through the stations.

The Victoria Line offers passengers a means by which to quickly cross the city. “Doze off for 20 minute and you’ll end up in Walthamstow,” a poster from the 1980s warns. The broadly spaced out stations allow trains to reach up to 50 miles an hour.

The station spacing also complements the, at times over-eager, spacing of stations on routes like the District line. This was a legacy of being built by private companies who were keen to draw in as many passengers as possible: the logic was that more stations would equal more passengers. By creating interchanges with all existing Underground lines, the Victoria line successfully created a network out of the patchwork of lines London had inherited. Spacious stations designed to ease interchange created a more connected network.

A warning from the 1980s. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

The Victoria Line remains popular today despite the grey design palette and ‘bathroom style’. As it has since opening, the line provides a fast and frequent route with easy interchange. Indeed, as a London Transport press release after opening of the Victoria Line boasted, the Victoria Line would be able to “carry 25,000 passengers an hour in each direction – the equivalent of 11 motorway lanes”.

Since opening service frequency has increased from every two minutes to every 100 seconds – the most frequent rail service in the UK, and second most frequent in the world. Today, it is the most intensively used line on the network, carrying more than 13,000 passengers per mile. “At 3pm [on 1sSeptember 1968], the public gained access to London’s latest tube,” MAC Horne wrote in The Victoria Line: A Short History in 1988. “They liked it, and have flocked to it ever since.” This still rings true today.

Nicole Badstuber is a researcher at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.