From Malawi to Montreal, and from cosmic domes to buried passages of light, architecture proclaims her name. The woman is not an architect, but she’s had the same job for 70 years. This is the architectural voyage of the most famous woman in the world – Queen Elizabeth II.
by Herbert Wright
June 2022 will be purple in the UK. The colour will splashed across media and in the streets, it will be impossible to escape. Even the Thames will go purple — at least in Central London, thanks to the Illuminated River project. Purple signifies the ‘platinum jubilee’ of Elizabeth being crowned Queen. A super-modern underground railway called the Elizabeth line has opened, and on the London Tube map, it is purple. Elizabethan architecture is a sixteenth century English vernacular, but Elizabeth II’s architecture is global, and reaches back to mid-century modernism.
Before setting out on the epic journey of Queen Elizabeth buildings, let me declare that this is not some sycophantic nationalist romp with a pro-royalist message. Royalty is a crazy system, turning nations and peoples into inheritable assets for a lucky family. Thankfully the Queen is no despot, but an intelligent, socially-aware woman who’s actively played her part in transforming the UK from an exploitative but faltering colonial power into a fairly open, liberal, multi-ethnic society. Politics is embedded in all architecture, and the buildings named after her start with some colonial paternalism (or maternalism?), mixed with the pervading western post-war optimism that rational design could create a bright future for the people.
Princess Elizabeth was on holiday in Kenya when she was told her father had died in 1952. One of the first buildings named after her was also in Africa – The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, opened in 1958. Rectilinear Miesian aesthetics were rising fast in modernist architecture, but this building is not unlike a big pre-war English suburban house, with its pitched roof and a big pediment over its entrance. No-one then would have thought of applying African vernacular to a hospital – not until the 1990s would the Italian eco-architect Fabrizio Carola use traditional construction techniques and form for a hospital in Mauritania.
Pitched roofs also characterise Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Building (1957), an exhibition hall designed by Page and Steel, but they run parallel as an engineered continuous folded plate, and the look is modernist. The heavily-massed 21-storey Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel (1958) in Montreal by Canadian National Railway architects is big-city American-style modernism. John Lennon recorded Give Peace A Chance there, with a live crowd in 1969 (the same year he returned a medal of honour to the Queen).
Still in Canada, the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium (1960) by City of Edmonton by architects Walter Tefler and RF Duke – now meticulously restored by David Murray Architects – evokes a flying saucer, an echo of modernism’s Space Age-inspired Googie architecture in the US. Meanwhile, the long 12-storey slab of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (1960) in Hong Kong looks like a block from Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse.
In the UK, major buildings named after the Queen had to wait for Brutalism. The GLC (Greater London Council) architect’s department embraced it as they expanded the South Bank cultural centre, and led by Hubert Bennett, the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1967) was a showcase element they designed. This is the building where skateboarders later colonised the lowest level. Despite recent yellow paint on exterior stairs and a wacky Mexican restaurant add-on, the deeply-stained concrete looks depressing. Brutalism is now a trendy fetish cult in architectural circles, but so much of it is just ominous lumps of doom in the public eye. Suspended concrete shafts in a striking entrance canopy at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall (1977) in Oldham, Lancashire feel so heavy, you want to rush inside before they crush you. The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, Liverpool (Farmer and Dark, 1984) is like a Brutalist interpretation of a medieval castle. Big exposed concrete was then already in retreat, and at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre (1986) in Westminster by Powell and Moya (Powell co-designed the Barbican), glass and metal dominate its stacked concrete floorplates.
Architecture went quiet about the Queen until 2002 when her own London base Buckingham Palace got an extension to show her art collection, called the Queen’s Gallery. Architect John Simpson’s pedimented entrance simultaneously manages to be safely neo-classical and whimsically post-modernist. Another royal jubilee in 2012 generated hospitals and sports centres in the UK, and a big Law Court with jumbled blocks of glass and concrete in Brisbane, Australia. Spanish architects Luis Vidal designed the Queen’s Terminal, Heathrow (2014), an airy 220,000m2 mega-building under curving roofs. Sustainability was high on his design agenda, but plane travel remains a planet-killer.
That brings us to the Elizabeth line, which should have opened in 2017 as the EU’s largest urban construction project. Since then, the shadow of Brexit has descended on the UK, and the line’s cost has expanded to £18.8 billion (not too bad – only 18% higher than the 2005 budget). The delay has brought a much better public name than the original ‘Crossrail’ (which is still the name of the delivery agency).
And the Elizabeth line is magnificent. 21km length of twin tunnels (so, 42km of tunnel) with seven central giant underground stations (all but Bond Street opened on 20th May) where trains 200m long stop. When the separate long-distance branches are connected in autumn, the Elizabeth line will have an east-west spread of over 100km. It will boost London’s rail capacity by 10% at a stroke. It’s like London’s getting a Paris RER line! (Yes, Grand Express Paris is bigger, but it’s lots of lines, and unless you’re near the Périphérique around Saint-Ouen, you’ll wait years for a train. And anyway, that line 14 extension north is on a smaller scale, like the Tube extension London already opened earlier in 2022 to Battersea Power Station)
There’s so much great new architecture in the Elizabeth line that I will return to it another time. All the stations by different architects have their own characteristics, but architects Grimshaw have designed a line-wide identity. The tubular labyrinths of underground passages and escalators are lined with white GRFC (glass-fibre reinforced concrete) panels that create a curving grid, like a representation of space in Einstein’s general relativity which has been bent into cosmic worm-holes. Elizabeth’s worm-holes, however, are under London and filled with light.
In the Sex Pistols’ 1977 anthem God Save the Queen, Jonny Rotten sang ‘there is no future in England’s dreaming’. Brilliant words… but wrong!
This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in early May 2022, entitled: L’épique voyage architectural de la femme la plus célèbre du monde. It has been updated to reflect that the Elizabeth line has opened in the meantime.
© Herbert Wright, May 2022