Going underground

The proposed design revamp for the London underground Tube system is set to rival the world’s leading subways, says Sarah Balmond

An underground station that whispers its name to commuters may sound bizarre, if not downright spooky. Developed by German artist and lighting designer Ingo Maurer, this soundscape will be installed as part of a wider sensory-based design concept across seven stations in the German city of Karlsruhe (DW 1 September).

The scheme will be built in 2010 and aims to create ‘zen rooms’ for travellers. Forget the often grey experience of travelling the London underground system, these stations will include ‘spider-webs’ of delicate lighting, loose traction wires, fluorescent tubes and LEDs embedded with sensors to create a three-coloured ‘shadow’ image of people passing by. Linear lights along the platforms will change to signal the arrival of trains, creating gashes of colour and a series of dancing horizons across the station’s interior.

Germany is not the first country to seize upon innovative underground designs. Take Japan, for example, where actual underground tunnels are lit with images to create an animated ‘movie’ for travellers. In the UK such designs are in their infancy, but a host of experimental projects are beginning to emerge that will change the face of the London underground system significantly. The design possibilities are just being realised.

Transport for London is gearing up to launch its first bespoke restaurant and bar chain, Underground Bar Kitchen – to be known as UBK – across the underground network. There are also plans to launch a retail service chain, Tube Stop, which will provide commuters with a space where they can buy groceries, pick up dry cleaning or get a shoe-shine, for example. TfL has been working with Keane Brands on the identities and interiors for both projects (DW 4 November 2004).

The organisation is also undertaking a project to revamp London underground entrances and is poised to appoint Priestman Goode to the task. The aim is to provide a facelift for some of London’s major stations, designing entrances that will integrate security functions with weather protection, information services and commercial interests. A prototype is expected to be developed by next year (see News, page 4).

‘We are looking at the nuts and bolts of the system. We would love to do exciting designs, but it is important to also concentrate on getting the (underground) system better. There would be criticism if we spent a lot of effort looking at ambient solutions,’ says Innes Ferguson, head of design at TfL.

TfL is also reviewing its design roster next month through European tendering journal OJEU. About ten consultancies will be appointed to two camps, covering off 2D and 3D work such as Tube and rail stations, product development, branding and graphics. The new frameworks must be in place by 1 April 2006 and the contract will last for three years. Ferguson says he anticipates a lot of ‘good ideas and original thinking’ to come out of the new roster.

Growing technical capabilities within the underground network is also throwing up interesting design possibilities. Lighting designer Jason Bruges is currently in ‘talks’ with engineering company Arup to develop a lighting system that uses ‘data from the underground system’ to ‘track’ the movement of trains. The lights will effectively ‘leave memories, histories and traces of people’ becoming pieces of artwork in their own right, Bruges explains.

His studio is also currently testing the technology behind the Oyster card, investigating if it could be manipulated as a way-finding tool. ‘For example, you could hold the card near a wall and it would light up to point you in the right direction, helping with navigation around stations,’ he says.

Bruges is also looking at how CCTV footage within stations could be used to influence the design of stations. ‘You can analyse people and their behaviour and then change the environment accordingly. For example, if an area becomes crowded, you could change the lighting level,’ he explains.

Bernhard Dessecker, a designer at Ingo Maurer’s studio based in Munich, believes overall there is a growing global awareness of the importance of design in underground stations.

‘Underground station design was not considered so much before – sometimes it was forgotten about, especially when creating optical illusions and fun, exciting elements. This is changing now, with people viewing stations from a less practical standpoint, to creating design with a more environmental, artistic approach,’ he says.

He believes two trends are influencing underground design: the desire to create minimum spaces stripped of advertising and the need to integrate decorative elements. The difference between a mediocre and ‘beautiful’ station often comes down to money.

‘A station, above all else, must be functional, but elegance should always be in the game,’ he says.

With TfL applying an appropriate design philosophy, laying a solid foundation from which to roll out a raft of projects, the London underground system is set to rival some of the world’s leading subways. Designers will inevitably be key players in this momentous and challenging occasion.


• Ken Livingstone has secured £10bn of finance to improve the whole underground system over the next five years

• New three-year design roster up for review next month. Will be in place by 1 April 2006

• Plans to roll out UBK and Tube Stop retail and restaurant branded chains next year by Keane Brands

• Priestman Goode to revamp station entrances

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