London Icons

Seeing Red in London – The Return of the Routemaster

I can still remember my first trip to London and even now when I think about London I see RED.

Not anger but the actual colour. As a child, wide eyed with excitement, it seemed that everything cool & interesting was boldly highlighted in a shade of RED:

  • From the changing guards at Buckingham Palace
  • The Life Guards (Household Cavalry) as they trotted by, in St James Park
  • The wonderful K6 (Kiosk no6) phone boxes 
  • The Royal Mail pillar boxes
  • The tube signs that stood as markers for the entrances that led to almost Tolken-esk mystical journeys into London’s own Mines of Moria to board the tube. Mind the Gap!

Changing the Guard at Buckingham PalaceLife Guards trotting past

Red Phone Box

Royal Mail Pillar Box

Mind the Gap!

And of course the double-decker Routemaster bus. As a small boy there was something amazing about seeing London from this vantage point.

A Small Boys Souvenir of London - the Double Decker Bus

Maybe it was the height that gave you such a unique perspective on London life. A new side of the city appeared around every turn from monuments to glamorous hotels, streets with their beautiful Victorian & Edwardian architecture to the high-rise towers of modern living… it was the city landscape that you never got to see on the tube.

The Routemaster Double Decker Bus

Or maybe it was the simple childlike pleasures of racing up the narrow stairs to get the seat right at the front, above the driver. Then there was the thrill, as you got near your destination, when you raced back down the stairs to the “hop-on hop-off” rear platform and as the bus slowed, leapt out.

Hop On Hop Off - The Platform to Your London Adventure (photo by A Hudson, Getty Images)

When, at the end of 2005, Ken Livingstone (the then mayor) started to phase out the Routemaster my heart sank. Did this signal the demise of the London icons. Would the Hackney cabs be next? What about the Ravens at the Tower? Or indeed the Beefeaters (Yeoman Warders)? Would it be a last bow for the street performers at Covent Garden? Will Big Ben fall silent…

London Icons - Big Ben & the London Bus

Thankfully the new mayor Boris Johnson pledged that he would introduce a new Routemaster. Northern Ireland firm Wrightbus (perfect name to build the right bus) teamed up with Thomas Heatherwick & Heatherwick Studios to bring this icon back to life.

The Proposed Design by Thomas Heatherwick (Heatherwick Studios)

But this wasn’t about dreamy eyed nostalgia – This had to be a workhorse for the modern city. It wasn’t about making a copy but rather a successor to the crown. I think it is a huge challenge to successfully design something for the modern world that is based around such a beloved London treasure. Yet that is exactly what they have achieved.

The New Routemaster Double Decker Bus (photo by Peter MacDiarmid)

The Old vs The New

I believe that for a design to really work it has to be thought about. How can it best suit its enviroment and the needs of the people who are going to use it. In this case:

  • People are Time Poor – The design has 3 entrances including one with specific access for wheel chairs to increase the speed that people can board and disembark.
  • Form & Function – From the outside two diagonal glass windows curve around joining the two floors and following the course of the two staircases. This visually stunning design idea now allows light to fill the once dark & dingy staircase well(s).
  • Natural Light – The whole bus seems to be flooded with natural light and anyone who has spent time working in London during the winter is sure to appreciate that!
  • Sustainable Solutions – This new bus will features the latest green technology, meaning it will be 15% more fuel efficient than existing hybrid buses and 40% more efficient than conventional diesel double deckers.
  • Improve the Layout – There is more room to fit more people – perfect to meet the needs of the growing city.

London Lord Mayor Unveils the New Routemaster Bus (photo by Peter MacDiarmid)

And of course to my personal delight there is the “hop-on hop off” platform. London now has a bus that is more sustainable to run, can carry more people and is a visually stunning. Great design, for me, is about embracing the existing beauty but being open to see what can be modified & improved in terms of  form and function.