We don’t often write about buses on the site (for fairly obvious reasons) but today is a red letter day as far as London is concerned with the much-anticipated Routemaster redesigned by Thomas Heatherwick back on our streets after a seven year absence. The designs were first released last year and there was a feeling the new bus had been updated without losing its iconic looks. But with Londoners now able to board an actual Routemaster – how are the changes going down?
Back has come the famous hop-on/hop-off facility and the bench (or lovers’ seat) but the body has had a sleek upgrade, with a long asymmetric window and a wrap around feel that brings the famous old bus firmly into the 21st Century.
Guardian design critic Justin McGuirk wrote a considered review of the new bus, conceeding that although it’s a “popular gesture” from Mayor Boris Johnson, it also marks, “ the demonstrative return of good design to the capital’s infrastructure.”
He says riding the new bus immediately makes you realise how “unlovely” our current buses are – with their “bright orange handrails everywhere, fluorescent strip lighting, baby blue flooring and a fibreglass interior that erupts into mysterious bulges in awkward places. There is nothing to be fond of.”
But with the new Routemaster: “The feeling that every detail has been designed with care. The way the ceiling is moulded and the way the interior is softly lit with LED spotlights almost suggest a plane cabin rather than a bus. With its hybrid engine, it is also quieter than other buses, and much more fuel efficient.”
Those eco-credentials have been much publicised by the Mayor and his team keen to emphasis ahead of spring’s election that the bus is “more than a pretty face” but still most of the articles have focussed on the aesthetics.
Interestingly both The Telegraph and The New York Times have used the new designs as a starting point for wider discussions about the British appetite for nostalgia and revivalism.
In the former, Harry Mount points out that: “Three of the great national clichés – the black cab, the red phone box and the Routemaster – all satisfy the English desire for old-fashioned things.”
And Alice Rawsthorn runs with that idea too: “Such reinventions are risky. It is easy for them to look cheap and derivative, and to nurture the impression that the company’s best days are behind it. They only tend to work if the original design was genuinely inspiring, and the new version is more than a respectful tribute, and delivers something extra that we need or want, preferably both.
“The Boris Bus checks the first box, because its role model was truly special, thanks to the Routemaster’s chief designer Douglas Scott and design engineer Albert Arthur Durrant. Fitted with the latest mechanical advances and made from the fewest possible number of components, the Routemaster combined rationalist efficiency with the seductive styling of flattering tungsten lighting, soft canary yellow walls, jaunty tartan upholstery and its famous lover’s seat.
“Some of its stylistic touches had hidden pragmatic roles. The canary yellow was chosen to disguise nicotine stains, and the tartan to hide dirt. Perfect for no-nonsense London.
“As for ‘something extra,’ the Boris Bus scores eco-points for fuel efficiency, while its three doors and two staircases make it more welcoming than the old Routemaster. Yet it has brought back the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ platform, and the same plucky spirit. Let’s see."