Heatherwick Studio on the route to success with contemporary design for London buses
Is there anything more typically British than a red Routemaster bus on a wet, windswept day? Millions of tourists return home after trips to the capital year after year with fridge magnets, rubbers, t-shirts and baseball caps all emblazoned with the iconic red London buses. It came as no great shock therefore that the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone came under attack from many British traditionalists when he announced his decision to scrap the beloved Routemasters several years ago. Luckily, the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, is not so short-sighted.
After a speculative redesign of the buses by Alan Ponsford appeared in Autocar magazine, Transport of London launched an official international design competition for architects and designers to attempt the same. This competition was jointly won by Ponsford’s own design consultancy, Capoco, and renowned architect Norman Foster. The tender was won by Irish firm Wrightbus, who had recently hired Thomas Heatherwick (whose studio has recently completed the stunning UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo). Foster soon withdrew from the scheme and Capoco’s winning design was dropped, leaving Heatherwick with almost free reign over the design.
The result is a curving tribute to the original Routemaster, designed by Douglas Scott in 1948, whose traditional streamlined buses featured open-access platforms, multiple decks and trademark curved frontages. Heatherwick’s 2010 design puts a modern spin on the classic concept, bringing back the open-access platform at the rear end of the bus (with the option of closing it off at quiet times), copying its curved exterior and of course adopting its gleaming scarlet hue. However, this younger sister also 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. Constructed of lightweight material, the buses are set to have a much lighter, airier feel than their predecessors, aided by a swirling expanse of glass, highlighting multiple staircases that aim to make boarding both faster and smoother.
Boris Johnson is clearly delighted with the outcome, stating: “This iconic new part of our transport system is not only beautiful, but also has a green heart beating beneath its stylish, swooshing exterior. It will cut emissions, and give Londoners a bus they can be proud of, complete with cutting edge design, and the freedom of an open platform. I expect to eventually have hundreds of these on London’s roads, and for cities around the globe to be beside themselves with envy for our stunning red emblem of 21st century London.” In these challenging times, it can be reassuring to dip into Britain’s nostalgic past, if only for a short bus trip. And where better to do so than in the nation’s capital? After all, as Heatherwick recently admitted, ‘Buses are the architecture of London. They just move around a bit’.