Claudia Fragoso 

Transport for London (TfL) has within London has gone beyond that of a mere infrastructural network. Commonly perceived as an organisation, the different phases TfL has undergone since its foundation in 1863 demonstrate that it is in fact an institution, and a crucial part of London’s forming as we know it in the present day.

An institution is not defined merely by its rules and laws, but also by the habits and conventions that characterise its everyday motions. It could be argued that, for an institution to thrive, there must be a strong belief and trust in the ideology that it represents. Given that institutions rely on connections with society and customs, Anthony Gidden’s claim that “institutions by definition are the more enduring features of social life”1 accurately identifies the importance of time and acclimatisation for an institution to form.

Institutions differ from organisations which are defined internal membership, hierarchy and goal systems that structure them.2 With this understanding, what we today know as ‘Transport for London’ - commonly perceived as an organisation – can be redefined as an institution. Originally founded in 1863, by 1933 the unification of various private railway companies, bus and tram operations marked an unprecedented ideology for the way London would function – a city fully integrated through infrastructure. In the build-up to unification, a series of deliberate moves helped define it as an institutional body and revealed the role it played in shaping the lives and form of London that far exceed the influence of an infrastructural organisation. The Underground became common space within which passengers coexisted under a level of order, regimentation, control and etiquette.

The Metropolitan Railway’s (MR)3 drastic and unregulated expansion into the North-West of the capital introduced the notion of suburbia to London’s urban fabric. The promotion of this vision was partially a tactic used to capitalise on the land that the MR tracks occupied; the cost of its rapid expansion required that the demand for transport had to be created rather than met. Nevertheless, the Underground was offering an exciting opportunity to buy highly affordable property and live a calmer and healthier lifestyle far from the city’s centre.

Sweet secret suburb, beyond the city’s rim: St John’s Wood.4

Ross Clark’s description of poet John Betjeman’s “gift to romanticise the mundane” seems particularly poignant when watching Metro-Land.5 Filmed in 1973, the documentary patiently follows Betjeman and his exploration of the suburban spread between Baker Street and Verney Junction, coined as ‘Metro-Land’ in 1902. The footage is effective in capturing the incredible optimism behind this image for London’s geographical and cultural expansion – a vision established and realised by the transport network. Wembley in particular was to become the capital’s new centre. Before hosting the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, rail entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin ran a competition calling architects and engineers to design a tower whose height and structure would rival Paris’

1 Eiffel Tower. Although never fully realised, the suburban initiative forever changed the perception of lifestyle at the time and transformed the shape of London.

In 1906 Frank Pick became Assistant Managing Director of the UERL6 and was in part responsible for the different railway companies’ usage of the “Underground” brand for joint marketing. This was Pick’s first step in towards a rebrandiing of the Underground as a popular space rather than a just a transport service: to shape an ideology for the institution. A key initiative was connectivity and unification across all of London expressed through a series of posters promoting all the attractions across the city. The vast quantities of art commissioned for and by the Underground under Pick’s Art for All campaign brought art to the public, making it accessible to all where it had previously been considered too elitist for wider appreciation.

The network fully immersed itself in the world of art, and was saturated with strong branding ad powerful graphic design. Since the reinterpretation of the ring and bar logo in 1916 – Pick’s collaboration with Edward Johnston – the visual language of the underground was universally recognisable and synonymous with London itself. Equally famous was its use of the world’s first sans-serif type (Johnston Sans), which remains an integral part of its popular iconography today. The public’s appreciation of design was proved further during the unification in 1933, when electrical draughtsman Harry Beck published the first version of the tube map we use today.

In addition to programs in art and design there was a heavy investment in architecture to create a unified and strong presence above ground. Architect Charles Holden’s seven commissioned stations along the Northern Line stood as beacons of modernity amongst the expansive South London suburbs. The architecture’s Modernist style was integrated elegantly into the Underground’s brand; as of 1924, the working classes from Clapham Common to Morden had a tantalising and convenient escape route to the vibrant city centre. Holden was to later design the UERL’s headquarters in 1929; as the tallest building in London, the cathedral-like presence of 55 Broadway in St James’ Park emphasised the importance of ideology the Underground represented. Frank Pick couldn’t even deny the power of the institution’s artistic identity from Holden’s creation; sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, and Eric Gill were commissioned and incorporated into the skyscraper’s Portland stone facade.

[I like how] one feels safe and secure within this kind of institution.7

The Second World War redefined the notion of daily life for England’s population, and saw a completely new relationship with the city’s underground. Relying on the city’s tunnel network for the protection of thousands, communities gathered in a shared experience which would come to symbolise the nation’s stoic and defiant front against Germany.8 The public’s instinctive attempt to take shelter underground was initially met by an equally instinctive attempt to prevent it by the network management. Their inability to control such a large number of people combined with the invaluable safety of thousands overwhelmed their doubts. They immediately allowed for shelter, placing bunk beds on the platforms for the public and providing storage for the safe-keeping of museum artefacts. A year later, a previously inaccessible tunnel on the Central Line was used to house the Plessey electronics factory. By 1944, five of the eight deep-level air-raid shelter designs that had been built two years earlier for government protection were opened to the public. The scenes in the tunnels of London moved artists like Henry Moore, who along with other war artists noted how a once private world had become public and communal, and the public had claimed this space as their own.

Over the last century the Underground has formed a vital part of the population’s daily life. Prior to the recent commission Labyrinth for Art on the Underground, artist Mark Wallinger exhibited a selection of amateur photographs from an online blog showing sleeping passengers on the underground (The Unconscious, 2010). As Wallinger claims, the juxtaposition between peaceful expression and physical discomfort expresses a level of remarkable trust that reflects on the population’s relationship with public transport. More interesting however, is the existence of the blog from where these images were sourced and similar mediums such as the account @ asleeponthetube on Twitter. Capturing the levels of basic comfort and trust acknowledged by the sleeping passenger, these photographs epitomise the public’s long-lasting relationship with the Underground and document a clear example of a subculture within the institution.

Throughout the years the various phases of TfL have been shaped by differing agendas. The influence it has had over the public’s relation and response to London has been a constant denominator. Its consistent bold moves and its role as a catalyst have far surpassed the bounds of an organisation. Be it the dream of suburbia and commute that drastically altered the city’s perimeter and a introduced a new system of life, the development of an iconic identity within the art world or the unification of a public transport system across London; its enduring relationship with the people and the city define it as an institution.


1.    Recent visualisation of what Wembley’s skyline would look like had the Great Tower for London been com-pleted. Brown, Matt. Time Travel London: Watkin’s Folly Towers Over Wembley (; 2013)
2.     The circle and bar logo integrated into Clapham South’s Portland stone facade.
3.     A compilation of images of Mark Wallinger’s ‘The Unconscious’ exhibtion (2010)
4.    Shelterers in the Tube, Henry Moore (1941)
5.    Kendall, Tracy. (DETAIL) (RCA Textiles 2001)
6.    O’Reilly, Oran. New World Order (RCA Printmaking 2001)


1.    Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press; New Ed edition; 1986)
2.    ‘If institutions are the rules of the game, organizations...are the players.’ Hodgson, Geoffrey M. What are Institutions? (Journal of Economic Issues Vol. XL No. 1; March 2006)
3.     The world’s first underground passenger railway service (now the Metropolitan line) opened in 1863. London’s previously overcrowded working-class neighbourhoods were obliterated as the Metropolitan Railway installed a cut-and-cover track for steam locomotives so as to comfortably and conveniently transport the middle classes between Paddington and Farringdon.
4.    Betjeman, John. Metro-Land (1973) BBC
5.    Clark, Ross. Betjeman’s Metro-Land Revisited (http://www.telegraph.; Sept. 2006)
6.     The Underground Electric Railways Company of London
7.     Interview with Mark Wallinger, Going Underground: A Culture.... (2013) BBC2, 3 June.
8.     Geoghegan, Tom. Did the Blitz really unify Britain? (BBC News Maga-zine; 2010)