Burying bad news is commonplace enough, but it's more perverse to bury good news. This is however what Boris Johnson did amidst the protracted post-election negotiations, when he renationalised the London Underground with the minimum of furore, achieving one of erstwhile mayor Ken Livingstone's key policies. The lack of crowing was understandable given that the elaborate Private-Public Partnership scheme had always been supported by the Conservatives. And now, the East London Line extension, a major expansion, the biggest since the Jubilee Line of the late 90s, opens without much fanfare – as well it would be, as another of Livingstone's projects.
Over the last three decades there have been two major expansion projects for London Transport, and their differing ambitions are telling. The first, the part-private Docklands Light Railway, has varied wildly in architectural quality since its mid-80s inception, now comprising an incoherent collection of shoulder-padded pomo grandeur (Canary Wharf), embarrassing neo-Georgian (Cutty Sark) and more recently, sleek futurism (West Silvertown), with the main constant being a general cheapness; the second, the entirely publicly-funded Jubilee Line extension, had a similar aim - reconnecting the post-industrial east and south-east with the centre - but in design terms it was a massive leap forward, a gesamtkunstwerk that London hadn't seen since the stations of Charles Holden in the 1930s, a series of breathtaking cathedrals of lustrous grey concrete and steel. The various big names hired by the director Roland Paoletti were captured at their best, perhaps inspired by the limits and difficulties of the programme - the stations by Richard McCormac, Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins are by some considerable measure their finest buildings in London. Gordon Brown's tube PFI was devised soon after completion in 1999, as if his Presbyterian instincts were offended by the scheme's sheer abundance and generosity.
The East London Line extension is, sadly, much more in line with the DLR than the Jubilee Line extension, though it's not without interest for that. First of all, in simple functional terms, it's incredibly useful. For those – like the present writer – who live in South-East London, it makes it possible to get to Hackney in 20 minutes rather than 2 hours; and moreover, it finally pulls the SE London suburbs into the tube, with Brockley, Forest Hill, Sydenham dragged out of their sleepiness, while Croydon's fascinating high-rise Alphaville no longer hides in plain sight. The extension is a fine example of adaptive re-use, recharging disused lines closed by Beeching, joining up with existing commuter lines and building in new infrastructure – the approach is a viable, potential model for patching together and extending our appalling national rail network. There should be many more of these, in Manchester, in West Yorkshire, in the countryside, and hopefully London's example can be followed by the rest of the country. And for London itself, as a new public transport scheme it certainly beats the sentimental whimsy of designing new Routemaster buses.
But anyone excited by Tim O'Toole (head of Transport for London until recently) talking of returning to the days of Charles Holden, Frank Pick and an architecture 'as distinctive as churches' will be roundly disappointed. The East London Line extension, for all Livingstone's protestations, was still a PFI project, funded and mostly managed by the public TfL, but with the familiar PFI labyrinth of competing contractors and mean-spirited, cost-cutting architecture fully in place; it now forms part of London Overground, a network reconnecting various suburban lines, fronted by TfL but owned and managed by LOROL, a private company owned by Deutsche Bahn and the Hong Kong Metro. Early reports that Wilkinson Eyre and John McAslan would design the four new stations on the network proved to be inaccurate; instead, those ultimately responsible - PFI specialists Carillion and Balfour Beatty, not the benevolent bureaucrats at TfL - gave the contracts to Weston Williamson, Acanthus Architects, and JSA Opus, most of whom have experience working on the DLR. It might have been conceived and largely built during the boom, but the East London Line is austerity architecture, fit for a recession.
Weston Williamson are the main architects of the scheme. Their orange livery and signage has a certain pop-design perkiness, and the new railway bridges traversing Hackney and New Cross are handsome, if unspectacular. Most of the old tube stations pulled into the new line have been given new orange & silver frontages – Wapping, Shadwell, Surrey Quays all look a damn sight better than they did – but the suburban rail stations which make up the bulk of the line are mostly unaltered, leaving them as shabby as ever. The new network's accidental masterpiece, the enormous 1850s Crystal Palace Station, was supposed to be restored and redesigned as part of the extension, but nothing has happened there yet. The line has two tiers, at least for now – one which stretches from Dalston to Surrey Quays, all swish and shiny; and another from New Cross to Croydon, which is significantly less sparkling. The difference is glaring. Meanwhile, the trains, compared with the Jubilee Line's hurtling pace, are barely quicker than the commuter trains they partly replace.
But what of the new stations themselves? Here, the dead hand of neoliberalism is upon them, as property development and the need to sell air rights and generally exploit the TfL estate affects the architecture severely. At Weston Williamson's Dalston Junction you enter a grim, low canopy akin to those inserted in the 80s' under the office blocks of Charing Cross or Liverpool St. It's a shock to find that there's nothing necessitating the gloom – Barratt flats atop and partially funding the station obtained planning permission years ago, but are currently credit-crunched; nonetheless, they were a part of the scheme from early on, necessitating demolition of much-loved landmarks like the Four Aces nightclub, to much local disgust.
Shoreditch High Street, the largest new station in the scheme, is subject to similarly depressing imperatives. It's a huge concrete warship smashing into the old Bishopsgate Goods Yard, and again it's grimly low and utilitarian at platform level. The megastructure is necessitated by the need to protect the line from any debris caused by any nearby regeneration; the intended new constructions haven't arrived yet, and the station is surrounded by rather picturesque wasteland. The result is by far the most striking thing on the line. The concrete panels were shaded orange or reflective in some early renders, but now the beton is wholly brut; angular little viewing platforms add dash to the monolith. Architecturally, JSA's building hits smug Shoreditch with thrilling if no doubt unintended violence, but it's curious this drastic solution was due to the belief that the property boom would go on forever.
Two smaller stations are equally intriguing, if not always for purely architectural reasons. The press bumph for Acanthus' Haggerston Station appeals to the sainted memory of Charles Holden, but if there's any resemblance, it's to his pinched 40s austerity station at Wanstead, rather than the no-expense-spared glories of Southgate or Cockfosters; inside, pretty mosaic cladding and a bizarre retro-futurist space mural at least rise a little to the occasion. Weston Williamson's Hoxton, meanwhile, inserts concrete, steel, orange plastic and a lift tower into the Victorian arches overlooking the Gefrrye Museum. It's a welcome reminder of the adaptive, ad hoc nature of the scheme – it's not exactly the Neues Museum, but the meeting of 19th and 21st century is achieved with an admirable lack of heritage kitsch, while the platforms reveal a strange and beautiful mess of skyline.
There's another set of new buildings crammed into the space behind New Cross Gate station: the service spaces of the new line, designed again by Acanthus. There's the Operational Buildings Complex, which is designed around a triangular atrium in order to create a common space between the private and public operators, clad on the outside with bright yellow panels. Then there's the jagged, decon-esque double-shed for Wheel Lathe & Heavy Cleaning, which is enjoyably strange from any passing train and desperately cheap inside, with the bathos of utilitarians trying to be a bit arty; but the triumph is the much simpler Maintenance Depot. This is a large, airy, top-lit silver and orange shed, where trains at multiple levels are surrounded by their industrial apparatus. Funnily enough, where half of the other stations are deliberately low in order to raise extra cash, it's this almost-hidden shed that actually justifies some of TfL's talk of cathedrals and churches.
It's horribly apt that the space here which truly communicates the occasional thrill and romance of the railways is not open to the public. And as a preview of what might happen at Crossrail – a similarly ambitious scheme stitching together parts of our smashed public transport system, similarly hobbled by PFI and its attendant penny-pinching meanness – it isn't encouraging. The East London Line, and the London Overground of which it's a part, tentatively suggests what might pull us out of our current mess - but it's still depressingly beholden to thinking that dumped us in it.
Originally published in BD, 11 June 2010.