An architect who revolutionized the lives of London’s commuters.
Roland Paoletti was the driving force behind the dramatic, award-winning stations on the £3 billion Jubilee Line Extension (JLE) to the London Underground system, the most ambitious building programme on the Tube for many decades. An irascible Anglo-Italian, Paoletti possessed the persuasiveness and tenacity to take on the vested political interests at play in the planning of the 10-mile Jubilee Line Extension to ensure good design and innovation. Historically, architects employed on Tube projects had been restricted to ‘fitting out’ the designs of railway and civil engineers with few or no aesthetic concerns, and whom Paoletti dismissed as visionless ‘trench-diggers. The Jubilee line would be unique in that for the first time the architects would be responsible for designing entire underground stations.
As the commissioning architect in overall charge, Paoletti’s approach was to let light flood down into the stations along the line. The project’s centrepiece was the extraordinary huge new station at Canary Wharf, designed by Norman Foster and Partners to handle up to 40,000 passengers an hour at peak times. ‘Everybody keeps saying that it’s like a cathedral; complained Paoletti.‘They’re wrong. It actually is a cathedral: Explaining his approach to designing underground stations, Paoletti likened the Jubilee line to architectural free-form jazz, the stations responding to their different contexts as dramatic variations on a theme. Instead of uniformity, Paoletti envisaged variety achieved in the beauty of raw materials like concrete, and the architectural power of simple, large spaces for robust and practical stations.
He procured the most talented individual architects he could find to design 11 new stations along the line, creating a unique variety of architectural statement pieces – notably different but all beautiful – in what had been a largely desolate stretch of urban east London.‘For the price of an underground ticket; he promised, ‘you will see some of the greatest contributions to engineering and architecture worldwide’ Paoletti’s sweeping vision did not disappoint. With their swagger and individualism, the stations have been widely acclaimed as a tour de force in public transport architecture.
In pressing for a seamless marriage between architecture and engineering, Paoletti was concerned to make the stations pleasing to the eye, and the daily grind of commuters using them as uplifting an experience as possible. The result was generally reckoned to be the finest set of stations since the classic designs for the Piccadilly line by Charles Holden in the 1930s. In Holden’s day, design stopped at the top of the escalators leading down to the platforms, a symptom of the Tube’s tradition of treating architecture and engineering as separate disciplines. From the start, Paoletti promised ‘a symbiosis of architecture and engineering’ throughout. This is particularly evident at Westminster station, where Michael Hopkins solved structural difficulties by designing fantastic supporting structures redolent of science-fiction – what Paoletti called ‘engineering that expresses itself as architecture… in which people can delight.’
He wanted the designs of the JLE stations to have a uniformity of voice, or, as he put it, ‘a philosophical uniformity’. Paoletti contrasted the drama of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s design for Southwark station with the vast glass drum of Ron Herron’s Canada Water station, intended as a response to the area’s bleakness, ‘a big, splendid beacon that has transformed the area from a wasteland almost overnight’ To critics who complained about the expense of these grand designs, Paoletti pointed out that the same cut-and-cover, box-station design that allowed his architects a free hand with their various structures also saved London Underground millions in tunnelling costs. ‘In any case, he noted, ‘you have to decide at the beginning whether you’re going to see an underground station as a kind of vehicular underpass that happens to have people in it, or whether it’s a building; a building with some other kind of job to do, like making people comfortable.’