Sunday, February 08, 2009

Woolwich Arse

London's transport system is, to paraphrase Black Box Recorder, beautiful and strange. It's always enjoyable, for instance, to point out that because of it, most of the best Modernist buildings in the city are in unprepossessing suburbs like East Finchley or Oakwood rather than in London's Fashionable Shoreditch, etc. Similarly beautiful and strange is the 1999 Jubilee Line extension, which I've been vaguely planning a long post on whether the world wants it or no. It might seem, with its muted colours and late high-tech atmosphere to be a quintessential bit of pseudomodernism, but that would be a big mistake. These are huge, cavernous, generous spaces, where the luxury flats and sundry Blairite projets of the last decade have been pokey and mean. Southwark, a silvery, space-age rotunda, North Greenwich a seemingly sober bit of Alsop which when inside reveals itself as a weird, oversized space of slanting columns and optical illusions; Foster's grandiose Canary Wharf station, creating such anticipation that when you get out into that windy collection of halfarsed skyscrapers it always disappoints; and most of all, Michael Hopkins' truly incredible Westminster station, a feverish Constructivist/Piranesian dream/nightmare of concrete vaults and simultaneity. The latter even reproduces the Modernist canard of the Victorian distinction between retrograde architecture and futurist engineering, as the building on top is a woefully pompous stone fortress, while the inside could even convince you that the Millennium was not such a crushing disappointment after all.

So because of this, as much as their Frank Pick-era pedigree, I'm always very keen to check any new stations and see if they measure up. The Docklands Light Railway is at a slight remove from the Underground proper, but is usually good, if never hitting the heights of the Jubilee or the '30s Piccadilly - West Silvertown, Pontoon Dock, Deptford Bridge, these are all fine, grey and perhaps just a little unimaginative structures. So when a station at Woolwich Arsenal, which is more-or-less local for me, opened, I felt an obligation to go there and 'review' it. It's clearly a good thing that it's there, although the possibility it might mark an early step in the supersession of the free ferry is a minor worry, as is it aiding the heritage horror of the nearby Arsenal riverside developments; but nonetheless. So you go in, under a DLR-standard-issue canopy into (what was on the day I visited, a blisteringly cold) concrete platform; but inbetween, there is a mural. A mural! Public art! For the polis! Except, it's awful. A collection of childlike, sub-Opie renderings of various consumer items, buckets and cafetiers, it immediately suggested the sort of mural one finds on 1980s shopping centres. Here are the things you can buy here (you can buy all sorts of other things in Woolwich, but I digress). So I was mildly amazed it was by top Goldsmiths-teaching, YBA-creating uber-conceptualist Michael Craig-Martin, who did some rather more interesting embellishment at the Laban Centre in Deptford. So while I can't argue with the intention, the execution was a painful example of the tedious art populism of the last decade, art denuded of anything that might set the brain to work in any capacity. No matter how much one might attempt to read it in the 'democratic', 'everyday' terms Craig-Martin suggests, the resemblance to something usually encountered at Bluewater or Brent Cross is so overwhelming that one can only hope the artist in question received every bit as meagre a salary as whoever did the tiles at Lewisham Shopping Centre.

Similarly, what the fuck is up with the current underground poster campaign, may I ask? The 'Know Your Lines' series, which I vaguely remembered having inoffensive if clich├ęd quotes from Alfie and the like, now displays to the commuter a series of quotations from such masterpieces as Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, The Bourne Ultimatum and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This lamentable populism would be a tad less offensive were there anything especially witty, snappy or even glibly clever about the choice of quotes, but these are just a selection of utter non-sequiturs. It's entirely mysterious why anyone negotiating the scrum of suited and aftershaved folk at North Greenwich on a Monday morning should be required to read such pearls of wisdom as 'I may have made a terrible mistake inviting you and your folding underpants into my life' or 'I remember...I remember everything. I'm no longer Jason Bourne'. Has someone actually selected this stuff? Surely the idiot influence of our new Mayor hasn't extended to a collective lobotomy at Transport for London's ads department?


Blogger roger said...

Ho ho ho. Just softening you up, Owen, for the appearance of the L. Ron Hubbard quotes. For instance, "Never regret yesterday. Life is in you today, and you make your tomorrow," which inspired John Travolta his whole life long.

You don't yet realize that you have been caught in the filming of Night of the Living Scientologists. You will not, alas, survive. But remember! "Dreams, goals, ambitions - these are the stuff man uses for fuel." - L. Ron Hubbard, TM.

3:46 am  
Anonymous Juvenile Dwarf said...

Similarly beautiful and strange is the 1999 Jubilee Line extension, which I've been vaguely planning a long post on whether the world wants it or no.

Do it do it do it (etc)

12:55 pm  
Blogger Bill Ellson said...

Have to agree with your contrast of the vast spaces of Jubilee Line Extension Stations with the pokey little hovels that masquerade as housing.

The designs for the stations were published before the government actually gave the go ahead for the project leading to one journo - I cannot remember if it was in the The Independent or the Guardian - saying it should be built just for the stations. It is not hard to understand why.

The extraordinary Westminster Station brings to mind Fritz Lang's Metropolis and fun is to be had suggesting possible inspiration for the other stations

2:37 pm  
Anonymous FStack said...

You should see what's happened with the poetry they display on the Glasgow Subway, Owen. We used to have Brecht, Mafta Gwala, and Arun Kolatkar. Now we have an 'Ode to the Subway' by 'Poet in Residence' John Rice that ends:

It goes roon' and roon'
Shooglin' aboot
Unner the grun'

I can't make up my mind whether he's a patronising bastard, taking the piss or just shit. Whatever, I've taking to cycling in this cold just to avoid it.

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