Simon’s World

My love story with a London bus.

Simon de Pury.

Over the years many of the symbols that were unmistakably associated with London got made redundant by the technological revolution, and some of them have disappeared altogether.

The super chic red telephone booths are nowhere to be found anymore, now that everyone walks around with a cell phone glued to one hand and the other hand clutching an iPad or portable computer.

The original ultra-spacious London taxis are gradually being replaced by Vito vans. These offer more space than any taxi in any other capital of the world. While being practical, they are however totally devoid of any charm or style. If you happen to take one on one of the rare rain-free days and have the bad idea of wanting to open a window, you realize that you can’t do so with the exception of a tiny slit in the two back windows that, when opened, offer no aeration at all. To make things worse, London taxi drivers, who used to be considered the ultimate aristocracy amongst the world’s taxi drivers, and who were always immensely helpful, polite, entertaining, and incredibly knowledgeable about every little back street of their beloved city, have begun to become quite grumpy, as if they wanted to start competing with their Paris colleagues, who still beat them hands down when it comes to rudeness.

The bright red Royal Mail letter boxes have become an endangered species now that you send a handwritten letter only once every blue moon.

The New Routemaster Bus in London.

The New Routemaster Bus in London.

Yet, the legendary red double decker bus, one of London’s greatest symbols, has not gone the way of the others. Every child has played with its miniature version and every grown-up has experienced London from the very best possible perspective, when seated in the front row of the upper floor. The original AEC Routemaster dominated London’s traffic for many decades. It was famous for its open back platform onto which you could jump even when the bus was moving.

In 2005 it was taken off London’s streets and was replaced by a bland and totally soulless bus. One more British emblem had disappeared without anyone really taking notice.

Things luckily changed when the colorful Boris Johnson was elected Major of London. He asked the brilliant English designer Thomas Heatherwick to come up with the design for a new bus for London. This proved to be a highly inspired choice for a number of reasons—first of all for ecological ones. The major of London emulated his former New York colleague Michael Bloomberg, who had been the first mayor of a big metropolis to significantly tackle pollution. The new buses had to be diesel-electric hybrids, this at a time when only small cars could boast such a feature.

Then for aesthetic reasons. Thomas Heatherwick took as inspiration the AEC Routemaster and created a bus whose first sightings on the streets of London made one’s heart beat faster in a way that only the first appearance of cars such as the Jaguar E Type back in the 1960s had managed to do. Initially there were very few of these buses around. Now, two years later, there are many more driving around, and it is to be hoped that they will gradually eclipse their far less appealing counterparts. Subliminally the image of London has greatly improved as a result of more and more Borismasters, as they have jokingly been referred to, being on the streets. A 20th-century symbol of London has been quite clearly improved for the 21st century.

While I don’t necessarily spend a lot of my time riding public transports, I can only recommend anyone who hasn’t done it yet to ride across the streets of London aboard the Heatherwick-designed bus. The detailing of the interior—the way, for instance, the steps are designed, clearly match the visual impact of the bus’s striking exterior. The traditional red color of the London bus was luckily not tampered with. During the FIFA World Cup earlier this summer, some London buses were repainted in black by Adidas as part of a publicity campaign. These clearly looked less striking than their regular red versions. Maybe the same thing applies to a London bus as it does to a Ferrari, i.e., they never look as good as when they are bright red.

Thomas Heatherwick has demonstrated that great design can create an emotional link with objects that normally would be regarded as straightforward commodities devoid of any aesthetic appeal. As Jonathan Ive at Apple or Lapo Elkann with his Italia Independente sunglasses have demonstrated, a creative individual can change a company considerably. The designer has taken the bus beyond redundancy, into vital use once again.

Simon de Pury tweets and Instagrams from @simondepury.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics