On November 13, 2007, fireworks exploded over Somers Town in London to mark the royal reopening of St Pancras Station for European services. It was the culmination of many things, marking the end of the long campaign to save the building and the beginning of the regeneration of the whole area to the north of the capital that the railways sequestered from London’s urban growth in the 1850s. By a benign process of stagnation, the train shed designed by the engineers William Henry Barlow and Rowland Mason Ordish, completed in 1868 (and the Midland Grand Hotel by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, finished in 1874), survived almost unaltered during many decades of neglect, and its transformation has received nothing but praise. Among the many people involved, the public took the 60-year-old and previously unknown architect Alastair Lansley to its heart during the BBC documentaries in the weeks before the reopening.
Mr Lansley’s drive to make order out of potential chaos, without overlooking any details, seemed to mirror the spirit of the great Victorians who created the station in the first place. This triumph over prejudice and fate is still something to savour, with more good things to come. St Pancras will, no doubt, continue to be studied as an index of Britain’s psyche for many years, although, for a compact but considered analysis, the book by Simon Bradley (St Pancras Station, available from Amazon and all good bookshops for £8.99) that was published just in time for the reopening is unbeatable. The train shed, which was the widest unsupported span in the world at the time of its construction, has become the most conspicuous rediscovery of an existing public space in the capital since Somerset House became our version of Paris’s Palais Royal gardens.
The absence of columns and the simplicity of its shape certainly contribute to its euphoric effect. The iron- and-glass roof has been given rather more than a scrubbing to remove the dirt, for a major structural repair was needed. The original pattern of glazing, concentrated in the upper zone of each side, has been restored, and one of the pleasures of the first summer of its reopening is to see how, as the sun sets further towards the north, different effects of light and shade can be enjoyed inside. The pale blue paint is not the original, but a colour chosen by the general manager of Midland Railway, Sir James Allport, some years after the first opening, to replace the original red lead. It is now an excellent contrast to the dominant orange of the Nottingham brickwork wall, which was dulled by dirt for years, until the 1990s cleaning of the exterior of Scott’s hotel. The luminosity of the interior reminds one of Charles Kingsley’s equation of cleanliness and godliness in The Water Babies, itself a story from the 1860s. One hopes that there is suitable provision for keeping it clean.
The roof has long been admired as piece of ‘functional’ Victorian engineering, but, by contrast, Scott’s elaborate hotel, which languished for so many years, was seen at best as a loveable piece of stage scenery, or at worst as a fatal wrong turning off the main line of architectural progress. A good scrub makes a big difference, and the exterior emerged more than 10 years ago from its first comprehensive restoration, shining in orange brick, with gilded finials, satisfying a new hunger for richness of carving and coloured tilework.
The interior, where architecture and engineering meet, no longer represents the clash of ideologies it was once presumed to be, partly because our ideology has changed, and we are happier to accept a pluralist combination of effects, each suited to its different purpose. There is no doubt that St Pancras Chambers, as the front building became known, dominates not only its immediate locality, but is perhaps the most spectacular piece of architecture that any foreign visitor arriving in London by Eurostar is likely to see. We must wait until 2009 to see the interior similarly reborn, with a new hotel bedroom-block designed by Richard Griffiths Architects to fit in with the Victorian work in form and colour. This will supplement existing public rooms in the lower floors of the original hotel building.
The upper floors have been made into loft apartments by the Manhattan Loft Corporation. At St Pancras, there has been a relaxed attitude to making inconspicuous pastiches of Scott’s detailing, discreetly inserted to give a sense of completeness. Arguably, this might have gone further, with more use of coloured decoration on cast-iron columns and other surfaces. Perhaps the present taste for ‘safety-first’ Minimalism that governs the new interventions at St Pancras will come to seem too timid, and further enrichment will occur. If the present popularity of the long-despised station would have struck our fathers and grandfathers as surprising, more surprises should be expected in the future.
Six months on, most of the shops in the basement concourse, many of which were empty in the first weeks, have now opened to create a shopping mall unlike any other, ‘more Burlington Arcade than Oxford Street’ to quote Mr Lansley. It is this undercroft zone that carries most of the foot traffic between the Underground and the domestic platforms at the northern end of the original station, serving the old Midland Railway towns of Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield. At a lower level, the former Thameslink platforms replace the rather grim 1980s station in Pentonville Road, with advertisement-free platforms so spick and span they make you think you had already crossed the Channel. Like many of the best planning ideas, the long straight concourse is one of the simplest, and it works as well as it does because the daylight comes down from the main roof through the large slot cut in the original platform level.
The shops, designed by Chapman Taylor Architects, are discreet and their signage strictly controlled, so that the dominant impression is of the old brick vaulting and iron columns. It could be argued that the integrity of the building has been lost, as the upper level, with little circulation space for the public, seems somewhat out of things. This impression will surely change, however, when the ramped approach from off Euston Road is reopened, so it will be possible to approach the train shed via the original arrivals arch.
The choice of routes will be further improved when the exits to Midland Road on the western side are opened. Travellers on the Eurostar check in at the lower level, and only when their train is ready do they rise up into the light to board. The result is that only the customers of the long Champagne bar and the eating places beyond the glass screen at the buffers end have a reason to sit and enjoy the pièce de résistance, the train-shed roof. This was doubtless the best solution overall for the operation of the building, but it is rather like owning a grand country house and living mostly in the basement kitchen. Paul Day’s unfortunate giant sculpture, The Meeting Place, may have looked as if it marked the place where all roads would cross beneath the arch, but it is actually in a backwater.
It is probably the most ridiculed sculpture in London since Matthew Coates Wyatt’s notorious equestrian figure of the Duke of Wellington, erected on top of the Wellington Arch in 1846 and later removed to Aldershot. A suitable place of retirement for Mr Day’s superfluous couple has yet to be suggested. The flat-roofed extension to the north of St Pancras, housing Midland trains and the tail ends of the long Eurostar trains, has similarly failed to win approval, although it functions effectively if artlessly. An unpretentious conservatory addition may be preferable to a misplaced engineering marvel trying to upstage its parent, but there is every opportunity to contrast the romantic and practical sides of the English character at their intersection.
The transformation of the wider area around the station (is due to continue for many years, including the new semi-circular booking hall attached to the side of King’s Cross, designed by John McAslan, which will help relate the two rival stations to each other. At present, there is nowhere much to go beyond the northern ends of both stations, but the plan for converting the old buildings on the King’s Cross Goods Yard and filling the empty spaces with new ones, is poised to begin now that the railway works are completed. Paris got ahead of London in the 1990s in the creative reuse of its former industrial infrastructure sites, creating new parks and ‘ZACs’, or regeneration areas. We are still waiting for Battersea Power Station to come back to life after 25 years, and there are few tourist destinations in the rebuilt Docklands.
Finally, we may have something to show off. A recent article by the planning commentator Peter Hall suggests that Britain is still wedded to a Benthamite Utilitarian philosophy of cost-benefit analysis regarding such investments as public transport. Yet mainland Europe is ‘fundamentally based on a Rousseauesque concept of general public will. This means that our Governments have struggled to justify any kind of spending on improvements that cannot be quantified in terms of time and money, although there may be a consensus in their favour’. ‘They order this matter better in France’, we might say, with Laurence Sterne.
Travellers arriving in Paris on the Eurostar have opportunities for noting other differences between our cultures. Euston Road, built in the 1750s as London’s first by-pass, has the character of an urban motorway, and however much the newly named ‘Regent Quarter’ between Caledonian Road and York Way thrives, it is a struggle to get across the road, and almost impossible to work out the best way to walk to Covent Garden or the West End, due to the absence of signage. By contrast, you walk off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, and, without traversing any stairs or escalators, you can emerge into the open air, cross an uncrowded road, and sit down to breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of a dozen small brasseries and restaurants. You are in Paris proper straight away and, if you choose, can unlock a Vélib rental bike from its rank and cycle off. Although the north-east corner of Bloomsbury contains many small eating places, ranging from the gastronomic to the popular, the street layout does its best to conceal them rather than presenting them to view, and thus we can feel the lingering influence of our culture’s negligent attitude to public space. Photographs: Will Pryce.