Know thy station; or, the various fates of three north london termini – part 1

by robertmcnicol

Howdy. Where is this?

Bright sunshine gleaming off the polished granite, metal frames and glass of crisp, late international style office blocks. This could be somewhere on Park Avenue or – just perhaps – one of the less showy buildings in the Chicago Loop. Except not.

These flashy buildings stand proudly in front of Euston station in London, in some ways the last hurrah of British Rail (which, succeeded by its later incarnations, occupied much of the offices on this plot) before that bastion’s decline in the 80s and the subsequent, despicable privatisation.

Until recently, Network Rail has had a plan to completely redevelop the entire Euston site, demolishing the buildings by Richard Seifert (who also designed the now-listed Centre Point, as well as the NatWest tower) and the area into what I think I described at the time as a hulking monstrosity. It turns out that all that speculation on property was a great big bubble and you can’t make shed loads of cash out of building millions of tiny apartments. Who woulda thunk it.

So instead, the plan is for a redevelopment of the existing station, albeit a putatively temporary one until all the HS2 money comes rolling in. I couldn’t be happier about this (erm, well – nearly. Keep going) because, contrary to popular belief, Euston is a good station that has the potential to be a fantastic one. Let’s look at the facts. It is wonderfully well-connected both to the tube and the bus network (it has a bus station out the front) and it even has an underground car park! It has a great big waiting hall, properly separated from the train shed, it has a highly functional courtyard with a mixture of eateries, and (the other side of the bus station) there’s a good swathe of greenery. There’s even a craft beer establishment in one of the remaining entrance lodges from the Victorian building.

And the architecture’s pretty fantastic. The taut concrete of the ceiling is quite special…

…as are the egg box mouldings in the ticket hall:

There are issues, mainly to do with the clutter outside and inside the station; clearly the station manager hasn’t heard that modernist architecture is about clean lines. And there is the trickier problem of Seifert’s administrative buildings and the bus station, which casually obscure the wonderfully confident full-width colonnade. Yet with a little love and thought, this building – even the whole complex – could be reinvigorated. If we must attach a nostalgia in order to sell the notion, how about that Mad Men/Pan Am schtick except with glamorous train stewardesses and businessmen bustling back and forth from the City to their wives in Cheddington. Or we could strip away the 50 years of accumulated rubbish and make what is already a nice place to be into somewhere even nicer.

To be fair, the architects (Aedas) seem to recognise this, and their plans involve removing the fast food shacks that stand directly in front of the station and improving the signage and so forth. However, my heart sank when I read this:

Increased lettable area will be provided by the addition of a mezzanine deck within the concourse, allowing growth in the premium food and beverage offer.

So not only are they going to make the station darker, block the wonderful ceiling off and make it feel more crampt, they are doing it so they can open a Carluccios up there. (You really don’t want to get me started on the use of the word “offer”. Or the superfluity of “deck”. Read the whole press release, it’s a classic example of corporate brain-crushing bunkum. I once again call upon the nation to behead its press officers.) Anyway, here’s a picture of what it almost certainly won’t look like.

What’s interesting, I think, is the contrast between what’s happened (or not happened) at Euston and the approach taken a little stroll up the road at St Pancras and the wonderful King’s Cross. Where Euston is derided as dark and ugly and then slated for demolition, these other stations are extolled for their beauty and romance, their architects lauded and millions spent on their makeovers. Why? Because old Modernism is deeply unfashionable and because good people campaigned to get these buildings listed.

Anyway, come back soon for part 2, in which I argue that St Pancras station is RUBBISH. I’m perfectly serious.