“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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.