Most Londoners of a certain age will have experienced travelling on the iconic Routemaster, the original double decker bus that remains a universally accepted symbol of the UK's capital city. With its distinctive blood red colouring, curved edges and open platform, the style icon of transport died what seemed a natural death in 2005. Seven years later, the Routemaster has been expensively resurrected and is about to be re-launched back onto the streets in February. Is it an unjustifiable political vanity project or an acknowledgement that style and design is as important as economic functionality in the world of transportation?
Journalist, author, member of the Conservative Party, Mayor of London and all round bon viveur, Boris Johnson is a shrewd politician with an uncanny populist touch. This is a man who challenged and defeated Labour Party incumbent and enduring colossus of London politics, Ken Livingstone, in the 2008 London Mayoral elections. Livingstone had been Mayor for eight years over two terms, but had been a political force in London for three decades. He had understood that transport was a vitally important vehicle in connecting with Londoners and had built his reputation with innovative and controversial ideas such as his "Fares Fair" policy that had reduced the cost of using London buses and the underground system in the early 1980s. Ironically, Livingstone's power was wrenched away by someone who understood the emotional symbolism and cultural reference point of the iconic double decker bus.
Johnson's pledge to introduce a post-modern version of the Routemaster was arguably the decisive factor in swinging the Mayoral election his way. He promised to replace the cumbersome "bendy" buses with a greener and more stylish looking model that harkened back to a golden age of London transport. He also emphasised that the new buses for London would be designed and manufactured in the UK rather than imported from abroad as the Mercedes-built bendy buses were. Livingstone was completely and utterly outmanoeuvred by the more nimble political strategist.
Developed by the Associated Equipment Company in partnership with London Transport in 1954, a total of 2,876 Routemasters were produced up until 1968. The original design plan was for a 17-year operating life span, but the fleet was only withdrawn from service half a century after the original prototypes were built. Inspired by the aviation industry's aircraft production techniques, the Routemaster embodied revolutionary design. Chassisless construction, an aluminium body, automatic transmission and independent suspension ensured a durability that no one could have envisaged. Their longevity has meant that successive generations of Londoners have grown up and have formed an emotional attachment to the buses.
| Like its illustrious predecessor,
the new bus has an open rear platform
and a stylish curved staircase (Photograph
courtesy of Heatherwick Studios).
Recognised for its work in architecture, urban infrastructure, sculpture, furniture design and strategic thinking, London-based Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract to design the new bus in conjunction with vehicle manufacturer, Wrightbus. The final result is a curvaceous futuristic model that utilises asymmetric glass swoops that let in natural light and highlight the two staircases, while retaining features from the Routemaster of old. An open platform at the rear allows passengers the freedom to hop-on hop-off, a very important unique selling proposition in the Routemaster's appeal.
In his 2010 Riba Annual Discourse address, world famous architect Lord Norman Foster spoke of the need to understand the inner story that generates a need for a building or construct in a particular location. Analysing performance can not be measured in sustainability alone but must include an aesthetic, social and economic agenda too. His most telling story in the address was of a project in Mumbai, India, which was to rehouse suburban slum dwellers in sanitised apartment blocks. The blocks remained empty because their construction did not fit with the social needs of the people that the new buildings were supposed to help. Just like Livingstone's bendy bus, it was a development that failed to fully understand the user.
The new Routemaster has been an expensive process in a relatively short space of time. It has cost £11.37m (US$17.42m) to develop and construct the first eight models and in a time of austerity critics have a right to question the priorities of the project. But by recreating the essence of a London icon, Johnson has introduced a sense of continuity to a city that is rapidly losing its soul. Splicing the past together with the present and future, the design of the new Routemaster contains a historical reference point that gives London a definition of its culture. In this case, it can be said that form precedes function.
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