Kathleen Biddick

title.none: Saler, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England (Kathleen Biddick)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.011 00.05.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathleen Biddick, Notre Dame University`,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Saler, Michael. The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 242. 39.95. ISBN: 0-195-11966-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.11

Saler, Michael. The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 242. 39.95. ISBN: 0-195-11966-5.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Biddick
Notre Dame University`

Medievalists take note. Michael Saler brilliantly argues that the development of the London Underground in the interwar period marks the culmination of the arts and crafts movement inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris (61). Its medievalism, appropriated by the moralizing developers of the Underground, enabled the adoption of controversial avant-garde station architecture and advertising. The dream of John Ball came true in such projects as the 1923 extension of the Northern Line southward to Morden and to other destinations opening it up in the new middle-class neighborhoods of merry suburban London. The Underground Group, later incorporated as the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933, was then one of the largest corporations in Britain with incommensurable local impact on London's civic identity ( ).

London's transport "czar," Frank Pick, a high-ranking executive of the Underground Group and vice-chairman of the LPTB from 1933-40, believed in the conversion of "a heterogeneous crowd of people" into a "homogenous army." (105) Saler studies Pick's corporate policies and also his cultural politics as influential chairman of the Design and Industries Association (founded 1915) and the later Council of Industrial Design (founded 1944). These two groups grappled with pedagogical policy for art and design in the schools. Saler's book powerfully reminds us that historians are only beginning to appreciate the complex afterlife of nineteenth century medievalisms. The study of medieval modernism also yields unexpected vantage points on postmodern architecture, especially its struggles with temporality.

As we learn more about medieval modernism, we also need to re-evaluate our histories of fascism. Saler rightly realizes that Pick's pedagogical crusade to act upon the "masses" through technology and design brushes up against the question of microfacisms in interwar Europe. Rather than asking how his study imaginatively reposes that question, Saler anxiously distances Pick from disturbing aspects of his aesthetic politics by psychologizing him. For instance, Saler trivializes Pick's brutal repudiation of an avant-garde project by the late 1930s (redolent although preceding the Nazi assault on "decadent" art) by reading it as a narcissistic injury incurred by the marriage of his secretary to a member of his staff.

My reading of Saler's book drew me to this complicated question of microfacism and its relations to arts and crafts medievalism. What struck me in Pick's work is the relationship expressed between "underground " and "aboveground." Pick and his avant-garde "stable" of architects and artists conceived of that relationship in the same problematic way that William Morris imagined the relationship of fabric to ornament. Morris, in fact, foreclosed the temporal permeability of fabric and ornament when he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 ( Morris had already declared an embargo on the use of his products in Gothic restoration and used SPAB to institutionalize the idea of a "national monument." Through SPAB and his commercial embargo Morris effectively produced as so many architectural relics Gothic "originals." Morris thus rendered fabric and ornament dichotomous and dehistoricized fabric by enclosing it the empty time of the "national monument." Morris entrapped the medieval like a specimen under glass and set back the question of time and timing in architecture. The dichotomy between fabric and ornament would haunt interwar British design.

Pick's work for the London Underground seems to epitomize the dichotomy between fabric and ornament in its fabrication of "underground" and "aboveground." The latter is what mattered to Pick. His architects, especially Charles Holden (an ardent Ruskinian), not only designed new aboveground stations but also built the "Cathedral to Modernity," the great London Underground headquarters, opened in 1929 at 55 Broadway in Westminster. Holden never even managed to get underground except for one level down at Piccadilly and the project at Gant's Hill. Thus the Underground avant-garde privileged the surface with the concomitant belief in pedagogical transparency. Such valuation was strongly stated in an exhibit of underground poster art (featured the work of artists as E. McKnight Kauffer, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and Edward Wadsworth) held at the Burlington House in 1929. At the entrance an announcement greeted visitors: "There is no Catalogue. A good Poster speaks for itself." (102)

This belief in aboveground transparency was at the cost of the design of the subterranean volumes of the underground, the spaces in which the "masses" navigated and spent the most time on their journeys. Pick left the fabric of the underground to the engineers and intruded upon it only with regulated ornamental detail: posters, station signage (the typeface for which was developed in 1916), and accessories such as benches and waste bins. His pedagogical project did not seem to encompass the problems of noise, light, ventilation, accessibility, safety, materials, flow, and finish, all of which the "masses" encountered repetitively in their journeys on the tube. One thinks of such subterranean design as an unimaginative enlargement of Victorian principles of waste engineering.

Curiously, one of the few designers, who thought differently about such relations, Harry Beck, receives no mention in the volume. Yet Beck is the author of arguably the most famous Underground artifact, the tube map, adopted in 1933. This map is one of the graphic masterpieces of the twentieth century and medievalists interested in mappae mundi and early modern cartography can learn much from its graphic history. Prior to Beck's graphic breakthrough in the early 1930s, travelers tried to make sense of a tube map dictated either explicitly or implicitly by ground level topographical information. This information bore no relation to the challenges of navigating the flows and vectors of the different, intersecting lines within the underground system. Beck abandoned geographical reference to the surface; he even eschewed marking a northern cardinal point. He distorted the scale of the tube map and presented interchanges as if they were electrical circuit diagrams. His work, I believe, broke down the dichotomy between fabric and ornament and yielded a dynamic graphing performative of the work of the "masses" in navigating the underground. Its remarkable use of color anticipates the brilliant experimental work of the artist Ellsworth Kelly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Could he have seen the London Tube map, when as a young artist, he traveled in Europe?)

The disconnect between fabric (engineered) and ornament (designed) in Pick's underground renders the human and mechanical vectors and flows below the city bereft of temporality. The specific implications of this design epistemology can be apprehended most effectively by comparison with the project to extend the Jubilee Line. In the mid 1990s the largest construction site in Europe could be found in the East End of London where London Transport extended the Jubilee Line 10 miles eastward into the Docklands, that erstwhile area of Dickensian disrepute. Finance, high-tech, and media companies, now ensconced in soaring (for London) glass buildings, render these old wharves a kind of Pacific Rim on the Thames. Imagine Canary Wharf (once the dock for banana boats from the Canary Islands and now the heart of the Docklands development) as an enterprise flyover in relation to the monumental metropolitan core of London's West End. The eleven new stations of the Jubilee Line were designed under the project leadership of Roland Romano Paoletti. Paoletti was trained as an architect at Manchester, worked in London under Basil Spence, architect of Coventry Cathedral, and served a long apprenticeship designing the Hong Kong metro. The scale of the project and the nature of the development certainly offer the conditions for a new kind of matrix microfascism. I was curious to view these stations to see what they made of such cultural pressures. I found a deeply layered meditation on the interplay of fabric and ornament.

A tour of one of the new Jubilee stations (each is different) shows a very different concept of space, of fabric, and ornament from that of the medieval modernism of Pick and his artists. Southwark, one of the smaller of the new Jubilee stations, is one of my favorites. The need to build the station on a small site nestled between a council housing estate and a nineteenth-century rail viaduct presented particular constraints to the architects and engineers. The design uses the oval tunnels cut at regular intervals through the viaduct as its organizing spatial theme. The station facade emerges on the corner of the Cut and Blackfriars like a fan of concrete and glass. Passengers step down a short oval-shaped staircase into an oval lobby. (Note however, that stations of the Jubilee Line extension are also fully accessible to disabled passengers). A skylight sits in the center of the lobby and extends above the roofline of the station like a periscope. Natural light diffuses the station lobby, which is free of advertising clutter. As passengers proceed toward the first level of escalators, they encounter another light well that pierces the roof and once again leaves the underground and aboveground permeable to each other. The external design of this lightwell, which is located adjacent to the viaduct, has the shape of a glazed arch on its side. This arched lightwell draws the eye from the shadowy arches of the viaduct, to the opening of the station roof fabric, and then down into the suffused light of the underground. A special delight awaits the passenger at the bottom of the first escalator. A glass roof floods this intermediate concourse with light. A curving wall on the left composed of 630 triangular panes of blue enamel glass held on stainless steel spiders glows with light. Six concrete buttresses fly out over the level and link the curving blue wall with its opposing wall consisting of viaduct like arches in which are set escalators to take passengers to the platform level of the station. No advertising clutters this concourse. The platform concourse is composed of aluminum panels with lozenge design. The oval curving staircases at either end of this level are divided by curving concrete and glass dividers that glow like the crescents of the moon. The platform areas too are devoid of advertising clutter. Aluminum panels clad the walls. Platform edge doors aid ventilation and provide additional safety. The only advertising is located on the curving wall of the train tunnel.

What strikes me most about this station design are its links to the surrounding historical structures. The shapes of the Southwark station embrace the viaduct. The "periscope" which is composed of small glass tiles repeats some of the glass tiling to be found on windows of the adjacent council housing. The station pokes unevenly aboveground though its projecting lightwells. The subterranean volume of the station is imagined as a layer of surfaces that draw down the light from aboveground at the same time that the folds of the underground architecture suffuse a glow upward into the aboveground lightwells. The station thus enacts the performative dynamics of tube travel in its vectors of ascending and descending and its flows across its own subterranean space.

The different teams designing the stations of the Jubilee Line Extension are imaginable only after the dichotomy of fabric and ornament has yielded to a more permeable and layered notion of relation. For instance, at Canary Wharf, one of the largest of the new stations with a passenger capacity of 16,000 passengers per hour, the architectural team was composed of a furniture designer, David Nelson, and an industrial designer (Rodney Uren). Would Frank Pick have liked these stations? Some British critics, such as Andrew Saint in his London Review of Books essay on the Jubilee Line extension ( have remarked on the continuity of the salvationist projects of Pick and Paoletti. An analysis of the relations of aboveground and underground as instantiated in the work of Pick and Paoletti suggests to me that the story is much more complicated. Did the Southward Underground station save me? What I saw there was a structure that exfoliates across light, technologies, and temporality. The layers of this station belie the incarnational beliefs of Pick (32-33), a belief that technology could embody morality. Instead the Southward Station offers a passage between several surfaces, a layering that in its exfoliation announces the self-differential conditions of the transport medium. The medium is no longer the message (if it ever was).