Tunnel vision

London Underground has made great efforts to improve its lighting, though it may not always be obvious. Carl Gardner reports on a campaign to introduce new schemes in some of the city’s most historic stations Forget tiled murals, new escalators, automatic

London Underground has made great efforts to improve its lighting, though it may not always be obvious. Carl Gardner reports on a campaign to introduce new schemes in some of the city’s most historic stations

Forget tiled murals, new escalators, automatic ticket machines and refurbished carriages. If there’s one thing more than any other that can improve our experience of travelling on the London Underground, it’s the lighting.

Yet for 30 or 40 years after World War II, the lighting of underground stations deteriorated to abysmal levels. The problem stemmed from the replacement of the elegant Thirties tungsten fittings, designed and installed under architect Charles Holden, with a new generation of cheaper fluorescent lighting. While offering greater efficiency and longer lamp-life, new fittings were installed in a totally piecemeal fashion, with little regard for aesthetics.

The King’s Cross fire in 1987 was a turning point. To restore public confidence, London Underground needed to make highly visible improvements to its image – and fast. The policy of installing rigidly standardised lighting was jettisoned in favour of individual lighting treatments for stations, particularly those with architectural merit. By 1990, several of these had been listed by English Heritage, so refurbishments had to be carefully considered. For the first time, London Transport’s director of design, Jeremy Rewse-Davies, invited an outside consultant, Pinniger & Partners, to develop a new lighting concept for the system, to improve the overall passenger experience.

David Burton, former principal lighting engineer at LU, now marketing manager of Urbis Interior Lighting, takes up the story: “We realised that the lighting concept project was a great opportunity to bring about significant changes in LU’s lighting. New standards were necessary; a new policy on light sources, for example, set out to replace outdated 1.5m halophosphate fluorescent lamps with modern warm T26 tri-phosphor versions.”

Another major issue was the style of light fittings. Burton explains: “We could re-create the Thirties appearance of stations using modern equipment which meets today’s standards. But should the luminaires be copies of the originals, or should we use something modern and efficient which might date very quickly? And if the modern luminaires are hidden from view, to achieve a period feel, this in turn might present maintenance problems.”

This issue of maintenance was crucial. Burton argues: “If you design a high-profile lighting scheme, the lighting designer must specify and be guaranteed good maintenance – or all the design work will be undone.” Sadly, maintenance has proved to be LU’s Achilles Heel, particularly on some of the worst-managed lines.

“All the schemes were based around bulk re-lamping and cleaning after 12 months”, Burton explains. “We are already 24 months on from installation in some cases, with no re-lamping.” Burton also points out the considerable retro-fit problem presented by the underground’s 300000 plus lamps, each of which might be available in four different colour temperatures.

Gloucester Road station – District Line

This is an early “cut and cover” station dating from 1868, with a newly inserted daylight atrium, which presented numerous problems. The client wanted some type of decorative luminaire after the style of the original gas globes. But too many would present a cluttered effect – as well as a potential glare problem – so fewer fittings with powerful high intensity discharge (HID) lamps were the only solution. First prototypes, using standard 150W high-pressure sodium lamps, offered poor colour rendering and were a harsh transition from daylight to artificial lighting. Tests with new enhanced SON lamps identified the Philips SON Comfort lamp as an acceptably “white” alternative, with complete colour stability over 8000 hours.

Victoria station – District Line

Burton says: “This was one of the most interesting redesigns, because it was a rare example of a standard architectural light fitting, Zumtobel’s RCE linear fluorescent luminaire, being adapted for use on a platform. The soft, mellow direct/indirect effect works well to produce a pleasant, bright interior. But once again maintenance has let down the scheme. Although the fittings were uprated to IP54 (a medium to high standard of water- and dust-tightness) “they weren’t good enough”, admits Burton. “There’s as much dust inside as out. Paradoxically, many open fittings, such as the totally bare fluorescent tube, can be kept clean more easily.”

Covent Garden station – Piccadilly Line

This famous station by architect Leslie Green dates from 1907. During its 1992/3 refurbishment, the lighting of the booking hall was reconsidered – it had very low light levels and a gloomy atmosphere as a result of inadequate high-pressure sodium lamps. The original soffit, rip-lath and mortar on masonry, ruled out fully recessed luminaires, so a semi-recessed special luminaire with a circular form was chosen. With a relatively low 3.8-metre-high ceiling, powerful HID sources weren’t necessary, so TC-L compact fluorescents, with a “warm” (3000 degrees K) appearance, were chosen. As Burton points out: “The higher illuminance levels now allow safer movement and easy identification of graphics, without the area appearing overlit. It was a small project but provided invaluable experience for other schemes.”

Hangar Lane station – Central Line

One of Charles Holden’s characteristic Thirties stations, with a large, cylindrical booking hall, daylit by a circular clerestory window. Originally uplit after dark, the existing effect was dingy and uninspiring, so LU asked industrial designer David Morgan to design a substantial new architectural uplighter, which could also be used in Holden’s other stations. The result was a 4-metre-high luminaire, with a central aluminium fluted column topped by a 1.3-metre- wide vitreous enamel reflector, housing 4x400W white SON lamps, to uplight the ceiling. The column is integrated into custom-made bench seating, designed by Martin Grierson. A louvre detail on the underside of the reflector gives some limited downlighting to the seats.

Sadly, LU’s financial crisis in the early Nineties intervened to prevent the full roll-out of the uplighter scheme – the only other installation was at Northfields, where the effect is rather ruined by a filthy, unpainted ceiling which fails to reflect light around the space.

Paddington station – District and Circle Lines

This is notable for the custom-made lighting fixture to illuminate the dreaded black hole ticket machines. Customers may not realise it, but LU’s infamous machines have their own integral lighting unit mounted in a perforated grill above the button display – but a masterly piece of design ensures that this lights only the bottom row of buttons and the floor. As part of the refurbishment, a special asymmetric reflector fitting, with a fluorescent source, was designed and mounted in the ceiling above, to wash the entire face of the machine. A welcome first, sadly not yet applied elsewhere on the network. Now all they need to do is re-programme the machines, simplify the fare structure and reduce the huge surfeit of buttons.

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