21st century Victorian

Vaulting Ambition: the £547 million King’s Cross station concourse.

What do they call those foam-plastic latticework socks they slip over your bottles of booze at airport duty-frees? Do they even have a name? Well, the new Western concourse at London’s King’s Cross station – most significant part of a £547m upgrade of the railway terminus and its surroundings – is a bit like one of those. Where the arching white steel structure suddenly funnels down in front of the original, re-revealed 1852 station booking hall, I keep expecting to see a giant bottle inside it. But this doesn’t matter too much because the rest of the space is pretty good. It is an enormous, interesting, column-free semicircular room grafted onto the side of the old station, designed to relieve its chronic overcrowding. It has just opened for use.

This is only part of the story, however. The old trainsheds and the long ranges of mostly mid-Victorian buildings to either side of them are being properly restored and in some cases (there was wartime bomb damage) rebuilt under the exacting supervision of English Heritage. The hamfisted 1974 extensions spilling out southwards towards Euston Road will be cleared away, once the Olympics are over, and a new public square made in their place. The main entrance now reverts to the western side, facing St. Pancras. Meanwhile, to the north of the terminus, a swathe of former industrial land is finally being turned into a new city district, a quarter-century after the idea was first mooted.

The new Central St. Martin’s school of art – famous for fashion among much else – is up there. It makes very good use of the goods- yard buildings by the original architect of the whole station, Lewis Cubitt. What used to be a wasteland is now traversed daily by what may well be the best-dressed (in the creatively eccentric sense) students in the world, wandering in peacock fashion up a new pedestrian boulevard, across the Regent’s Canal, and through what is fast becoming another significant square to their new home.

Concert-goers and lovers of comedy and jazz will already know all about King’s Place, the office development just across York Way from all this that houses Guardian Newspapers, has a concert-hall complex in its basement, art galleries at street level and a restaurant at the back overlooking a canal basin. Designed by Royal Opera House architects Dixon Jones, that was stuck out on a limb at first but is now part of a nascent cultural quarter with Central St. Martin’s – which has the just-opened Platform Theatre in it.

As for the commercial stuff, there are to be office buildings and apartment blocks aplenty. It is said that a line of five new linked buildings close to the terminus will soon be built to house the UK HQ of Google. For once all this has not been a free-for-all but by British standards a painstakingly planned process over many years, masterminded by a developer, Argent, with a good track record and with a good roster of architects, from high modern to neoclassical. It’s all a huge building site now but you have to track back in your mind: what was this place like before?

It was one of those areas which had lost its purpose, with some residual industry, a parcel depot, decaying historic buildings, a redundant (and equally historic) gasworks, odds and sods like a bleak golf driving range. Prostitutes and drug dealers collected around King’s Cross. I sometimes resent the over-sanitising urge of planners and developers – a bit of dereliction here and there is good for the soul, and usefully cheap. Cities need their edge-lands. But I can’t really argue with this project. This is a distinct improvement. It has not been easy, but it has happened at last. Add everything together, and the area is getting around two billion pounds of well- directed investment. Central St. Martin’s is particularly impressive, if a bit dauntingly huge (industrial scale, you see) inside. Its architects Stanton Williams have cleverly used restrained new building to stitch together the historic group, including Cubitt’s imposing Granary, which used to tranship directly to the canal in front for distribution across London. Their new Granary Square here will step gently down to the canal’s edge. It’s not quite the bathing ghats of Benares, but it makes good use of what was a largely concealed waterway.

The King’s Cross Station end of things is masterminded by architects John McAslan and Partners. McAslan is one of those biggish names who is not in the ‘starchitect’ league but is a cut above the norm, mixing it with cultural, educational and commercial buildings alike. He’s developed a historic-buildings specialism: it was he who revitalized another railway building, London’s Roundhouse, a few years back. In a way his new Western Concourse is a built diagram. This was the only direction the station could expand while at the same time restoring it to something approaching its original appearance. The curving Great Northern Hotel, again by Cubitt, made a boundary and generated the geometry. The resulting semicircle happily pulled in the ends of the ‘suburban’ platforms, which had been grafted on later to one side of the main station. Meanwhile, the heritage watchdogs wanted the bulk of the new extension kept low. Beneath it, a huge new Underground ticket hall limited the options still further. Given all these constraints, McAslan and his engineers, Arup, did a clever thing.

It looks effortless, this white shallow dome, but structurally it is complex. Since it couldn’t be hung off the old buildings – they couldn’t take any extra weight – that latticework funnel was the solution, acting as a giant spaced-out column. I’m slightly amazed that English Heritage allowed it, crashing down right in front of the old booking hall, and there’s a distinctly clumsy filler piece closing the gap at the top, but overall the bold approach works. Yes, it could be more delicate. But we’re in a world where such public buildings have to be as blast-resistant as possible. It has no columns apart from round the edge, and it is very, very, strong. Nor is it a glasshouse: though daylight enters through the ‘funnel’ and round the edges, the roof is mostly solid.

McAslan and Arup have made some modern-historic references here. One is to the Italian engineer-architect Pier Luigi Nervi who produced virtuoso domes for the 1960 Rome Olympics. The other is to the 1950s American expressive-modernist Eero Saarinen, in particular his feted TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport. Well, dream on. The curvy restaurant mezzanine at the back of the space, clad in white ceramic discs, is very 1950s-futuristic though it feels a bit too big for the space, jammed up against the edge. From here you can walk at high level to a new overbridge inside the old station which drops you midway down the platforms. Most, however, will walk at ground level through the south-western end of the new concourse. The ends of four platforms have been pulled back several yards to make more space at this entry point. Meanwhile the ground level of the old Great Northern Hotel becomes a public arcade forming part of the edge of the new building.

From outside the new concourse has a clamshell look: surprisingly – maybe, given all the heritage attention, deliberately – unspectacular to the point of banality. The drama is all inside. You can’t beat virtuoso engineering, and the best railway stations are all about the roof, after all. Given which, it’s great to see that Cubitt’s original glazed roof vaults and end windows have been meticulously restored. Photovoltaic panels on top will generate, they say, about seven per cent of the station’s power needs. Not much, but every little helps. For most of us, it will be enough to be in a place that is not uncomfortably, even at times dangerously, overcrowded when we go to catch a train.

For the full effect of all these changes, we shall have to wait until the new southern square, designed by architects Stanton Williams again, is built. That’s a tough one because it’s right up against a very busy road and there are bits of Underground vents and suchlike which somehow have to be incorporated. The effect, though, will be to reveal the southern end of the station much as Cubitt designed it. A sense of space is what you need in a transport interchange which now has 50 million people a year passing through: when first built, Cubitt provided only two platforms, one arriving, one departing.

Ever since they demolished the old Euston Station in the early 1960s – and came close to demolishing St. Pancras – the remaining old London termini have become sacrosanct. These days we have a lean-to, accretive mentality, and this is surely the ultimate lean-to. You need to be clever, and patient, to do this well. It’s not perfect, but it succeeds. King’s Cross breathes again.

Text and photos (except aerial) © Hugh Pearman. Map graphic courtesy of The Sunday Times. Fuller version of article first published in The Sunday Times, 18th March 2012 as “Back to the futuristic”.

Links

John McAslan + Partners, architects: http://www.mcaslan.co.uk/
Arup, engineers: http://arup.com/
King’s Cross regeneration consortium: http://www.kingscross.co.uk/
King’s Place: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk
Dixon Jones architects: http://www.dixonjones.co.uk/
Central St. Martin’s school of art: http://www.csm.arts.ac.uk/
Stanton Williams Architects: http://www.stantonwilliams.com/

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