Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Linked to the urban core by state-of-the-art electric trains by 1900, this area was in many ways a harbinger of a cleaner, brighter future.
Head out along the rails that snake out through London’s post-Victorian suburbs and you’ll find a treasure chest of innovative 20th-century architecture.
The Modernism in Metro-Land blog has been cataloging this design heritage since 2011, also spinning off into walking tours led by creator Joshua Abbott. Not only does the blog show the distinctive and sensitive direction that avant-garde Modernism took in Britain’s aesthetically conservative atmosphere, it also charts how whole sections of the city have their public transit connections to thank for their current form and style. Now, a crowdfunding campaign is also underway by Abbott to map and celebrate these buildings in an illustrated book, itself drawing from the longstanding website.
There’s a clue to the centrality of the railway in London’s development in the project’s title. Metro-Land is the name given to a broad, fan-shaped swath of northwest London, on which the blog and book mainly concentrates. Not only did this district get its name from its proximity to the Metropolitan Railway, it was a term coined by the railway company itself, which used it as a branding tool to market the charms of the area it served.
The Metropolitan Railway’s initial underground section in Central London was the precursor of all future subway systems, and extended to London’s northwestern quasi-rural hinterland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Laying the tracks required the railway company to buy up large tracts of land. Seeking to sell this land profitably and create a new pool of passengers, its marketing department coined the term Metro-Land in 1915 as a brand for the region. As it sold the land along the tracks to developers, it also published an annual Metro-Land Guide extolling the area’s virtues until 1932.
The new districts that sprung up along the tracks between World War I and II highlight the paradox of London’s new suburbs. Linked to the metropolis from 1900 onward by state-of-the-art electric trains, this area was in many ways a harbinger of a cleaner, brighter future. It allowed residents to leave their contemporary, light-filled homes to travel distances to work that were previously impractical or impossible. This created a speculatively driven model for the future that ran parallel to the more obviously utopian Garden City model.
Despite this, Metro-Land and London’s other suburbs from the period also looked back in time. Their layout and architecture sought to recreate a somewhat rural idyll, forging a district that, as Abbott told CityLab, was “nostalgic even when it was first built, harking back to a more rural era, to the idea of people living in a leafier, more spacious place.” Its homes were been built on an industrial scale, but they aimed for a sort of backward-looking coziness, often using features of historical vernacular housing such as half-timbering as part of a style evoking the 16th century commonly known as Tudorbethan.
And yet, as a glance at Modernism in Metro-Land makes clear, the area is still packed with quintessentially 20th-century architecture, much of it great. Standing in contrast to the speculatively built estates of new housing, the best of this architecture is often found in public or commercial buildings, including palatial Art Deco factories, spectacular churches, skyscraper-like cinemas, and, of course, groundbreaking train stations.
The juxtaposition of this kind of architecture with cottagey homes might sound jarring, but it isn’t. We tend to think of Modernism as a radically austere departure from the more decorated, historically-informed styles that preceded it like Arts & Crafts in Britain, and American Craftsman across the Atlantic. A closer look at the architecture of London’s Metro-Land, however, shows what close continuities there were between these styles. In some cases, even the architects were the same.
Take Charles Holden, the architect of many suburban tube stations that were ultimately recognized as some of London’s greatest 20th-century buildings. In his early career, Holden was designing buildings such as Kensington’s Belgrave Hospital for Children. This urban facility, whose cruciform layout, Jacobean-inspired decorations, and complex roofline of steeply pitched roofs, gables, and turrets, has an unmistakably late Victorian aspect even though it was designed in 1901. Fast-forward to Holden’s 1932 design for northwest London’s Arnos Grove Station with its up-to-date, even industrial look of the paneled windows and blank brick walls and it’s hard to believe the architect is the same.
Still, there’s much continuity. Abbott notes the careful use of contrasting materials: glass, brick, metal, concrete, and wood used for specially designed interior paneling and telephone booths. “Every little detail is designed really well, right down to the seats and handrails,” he says. “Even the brick came from as local a source as possible—just outside London in Buckinghamshire.” It’s arguably this craftsy focus on detail, Abbott suggests, that makes these buildings still stand as viable models today.
“Buildings like these may be functional, but that doesn’t mean that every little detail isn’t designed really well, right down to the seats and handrails,” says Abbott. “That’s something that’s all too rare in public sphere projects nowadays that we could really do well to return to.”
The crowdfunding page for A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land can be found here.