All your station are belong to us: Hillhead Subway Station

17 Feb 2013 | blog, comment

glasgow-subway-hillhead - All your station are belong to us - Hillhead station belong
This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) Magazine.

The completion of refurbishment works at Hillhead Subway Station by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) is the first result of an improvement programme for Glasgow’s Subway which will affect rolling stock, stations and graphics over the next couple of years.

As is to be expected, the chattering and twittering classes were divided on the merits of this £350M initiative preferring a) the original pre-1979 design complete with on-board smoking or b) the 1979 orange, brown and cream version launched when Dr Hook was No1 in the charts with “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman…” or c) their own suggestions for improvement.  Most of these good folk go on city breaks to mainland European cities and come back enthusing about contemporary design in transport infrastructure but want gaslights and rats in their own city subway.  Go figure and welcome to the strange cronocaotic world of popular British design criticism.

As a reasonably regular user of this station, the refurbishment works have been genuinely interesting to watch. The removal of the 1979 vintage suspended ceiling revealed a fascinating and complex cathedral of concrete beams and other structures above the Hillhead platforms which gave a completely new scale and level of interest to the station. The sleek new livery of the trains contrasted well with this deconstructed interior but as the new ceiling was gradually installed, my interest waned.  As the new tiles gradually obscured the 1979 design in the same way as the 1979 design tiles obscured the original scheme I realised I was standing in a palimpsest. The station was getting smaller every 30 years as the layers of tiles built up.  My ticket looked like the station. The station looked like the train.  Is this what SPT paid for?  Perhaps I just don’t get the corporate world and its need to “communicate values, culture and personality“. Does anyone actually believe this stuff?  Is it really necessary to unify everything to such a low datum?

Anyway, in practical terms this is not about architecture and maybe that is at least part of the problem.  Rather, it has much more to do with corporate identity, graphics and interior design. These were designed by Stand who won a Scottish Creative Award for this work in 2012 while Aedas partnered on architecture.   In general it’s a worthwhile change from the amateur-hour graphics of previous incarnations, especially the last deep-orange-and-maroon clunk. Given that the orange had to stay in the new identity for reasons clear to Glaswegians, it isn’t a bad job. Transfer it on to tickets, posters and train livery and it still works. Move it into a station and, well, Hillhead is bright and cheerful. Yes. But then the gents’ lavatory accusations start. Is it a step too far for these large plain white tiles (think B&Q row 6, Bathrooms) to cover an entire subway station?  Probably but it’s a cheap as chips job. It’s just a rebranded subway station after all – not a Sainte Marie de La Tourette or a Maison Bordeaux so some perspective is needed.

And while I’m indifferent to slightly lukewarm to the corporate branding, I care more about some other things.  The experience of the new station is somewhat undermined by the corporate culture of the organisation.  This is expressed in the relentless advertising that clutters up everything, the deafening public address announcements about security, the camera ban, the wi-fi you have to sign into, the restricted Subway opening hours and now the big homemade paper notices taped on the new tiles advising us to hold on to the handrails.  I asked an SPT bloke about the latter and he said it was about safety. Apparently condensation is so bad in the newish station that slippery floor tiles are a constant hazard. You can see this walking past on Byres Road – the station windows are steamed up like an unventilated bathroom – it’s a damp place.  Perhaps someone should have thought of this. The obvious solutions are to have fitted carpets on the stairs and platforms and to tape handmade safety notices to the glass in the entrance hall.  Don’t scoff – it might happen.

Finally I wonder about the relationship between this subway station and the public environment of Byres Road. The station is a genuine meeting point and social space on the street yet absolutely no effort has been made to engage the station entrance with the public realm or the adjacent bus stop, perhaps with a unified surfacing scheme or extending the station canopy to shelter the bus stop or even integrating the improvements with the awful Starbucks next door. Just a wasted opportunity but it would be good if SPT tried to do this with other stations.

Oh sorry I forgot. There is also an Alasdair Gray mural inside the station but it isn’t as thoughtful or relevant as the temporary message that was there before the unveiling.   It said, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”  Maybe SPT should bear that in mind.

NB: The title of this post (All your station are belong to us) isn’t a mistake – it is taken from “All your base are belong to us” (often shortened to “All Your Base”, “AYBABTU”, or simply “AYB”), a broken English phrase that became an Internet phenomenon or meme. The text comes from the opening cutscene of the 1991 European Sega Mega Drive version of the video game Zero Wing by Toaplan, which was poorly translated from the original Japanese version. Read the Wikipedia page here