Published  11/12/2007

Architecture: London's new rail terminus at St Pancras

Architecture: London's new rail terminus at St Pancras

In the 18th century there lay just to the north of the burgeoning City of London, divided from the metropolis by green meadows, a pleasant leafy village capped by the church of St Pancras, and nearby the salubrious public house and tearooms known as the St Pancras Wells. Here could be found, apart from fashionable and necessary refreshments for travellers both north- and southwards, wells of supposedly healing waters.

St Pancras himself was supposed to be a teenage Roman martyr beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian, commemorated in Rome by his original church, the Basilica di San Pancrazio. Quite separately, thousands of corpses were earlier unearthed in the railway lands just to the north, and quietly and mercifully reinterred in East Finchley. This event is shrouded in mystery, like the identity of the l9th-century 'Ripper'. There are, however, few ghosts, if any, lingering around today. The once-fashionable sanctuary for travellers' refreshments has become the dramatic new terminus for Continental travel at St Pancras.

The romance of travel has been well held again in the reconstruction process, by the unavoidable 92-foot long champagne bar and by an enfilade of retail establishments, such as a Betjeman Arms pub, a Searcy's Restaurant (perhaps wisely not named the Pevsner Diner) and in due course a West Cornwall Pasty shop and a Camden Food Deli. There will not, however, be a McDonald's, a Burger King, or even Upper Crust visible anywhere.

The lower 'undercroft' level of the complex will have a Marks & Spencers, and en route for the British Library across the way, a Foyles bookshop, plus a host of other household names and retail chic establishments. Gone for good now is the blackening image of the decaying hotel, now under a sumptuous restoration scheme, and the run-down ticket offices and news-stand of the old station, once frequented by Midland businessmen, from Kettering, and by comic book-seeking prep-school pupils from the foxhunting shires en route, Harry Potter-like, for term-time incarceration in their schools. Fortunately, none of this seems to have been deemed strategic enough to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. The greatest risk was that which afflicted Euston station, that is the swing of the wrecker's ball, with the support of John Betjeman, for George Gilbert Scott's Victoriana, and Pevsner. For William Henry Barlow's great train shed, St Pancras Station, was as a whole listed Grade I for conservation and saved from a similar fate in the nick of time.

Betjeman is commemorated on the new forecourt by a tall sculpture (by Martin Jennings) that hovers on the edge of caricature, and there is an even more kitsch-driven 30-foot high sculpture, 'The Meeting Point' depicting a happy couple, in scale perhaps to the great Dent's clock overhead. The sculpture is less a caricature than a predicament portrayed; two figures stuck in a shower, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

The new St Pancras, notwithstanding these unwarranted diversions for the eye, occurs as a superb recapturing of the romance of the train, which seemed all but lost in the post-war period. Those arriving from Lille or Paris are presented with a superb, high-tech 19th century enclosure which by far exceeds the charisma of the Continental side. The train shed by Barlow maintained that pre-eminence in the world for a long period, being the widest use of the single-span arch anywhere. Now these massive yet elegant arches are painted sky blue. Presumably, in the more sober 1860s they were first painted a middle brown, suited to a professional man from the Midlands appearing in a brown serge suit, with braided lapels and topped by a brown bowler hat. Contemporarily, it is fortunate that the engineers for the current restoration have been Arup. The architect for all the principal works has been a long-established, highly proficient railway architect named Alastair Lansley, and for all the elegance expressed, there still is, as a result a distinctly hands-on feel about the whole enterprise, which might have been lost if a 'star' architect had been commissioned. Lansley, has been accompanied by Richard Griffiths (Architects/RHWL) in the restoration of the hotel itself. Also restored to the public eye and esteem are the original carefully selected materials specified by Scott himself: Grippe's patent Nottingham bricks, Ancaster Stone dressed-up and stonework shafts correctly interspaced in Aberdeenshire red and grey granite.

The discreet, almost 'by stealth' manner in which the whole station complex has finally emerged from its chrysalis of renovation belies the real promotional truth that here at last is the world's greatest railway station, bar none. It might be claimed that Foster Associates' new Dresden Terminus had beaten it by a whisker, and it is an exceptional piece of design for a wholly bombed-out station. However, St Pancras exceeds on more than points. The Lansley team and their clients have achieved a most difficult synthesis, retaining the ethos of the first great age of the train, yet metamorphosing this into the 21st century new rail age. The thoughtful recovery of the massive but elegantly formidable Dent forecourt clock is as vital an accoutrement of the new terminus as the gold watches on chains that were set to its hands and that kept 19th century industrialised Britain running to time.

A further, but vital innovation here (and for Britain too), is the International Union of Railways 'B' Gauge Specification track which will eventually allow German and French high speed trains to enter London and hopefully one day extend to Glasgow. A regret has to be expressed that the excellent Waterloo terminus, which preceded St Pancras, designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, has been replaced. However, it is to the satisfaction of all French patriots that they no longer have to arrive at a terminus recalling in its name a monumental military defeat of their nation. This would, for the British, be like arriving at a French station called Dunkirk.

A further bonus for France is the immediate proximity of St Pancras to the British Library, the masterpiece of the late Sir Colin St John Wilson. This might be significantly preferred to visiting the somewhat remote new Paris towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale located by the Seine. French bibliophiles at least might find the Wilson experience rather more congenial. Architects will recognise how well Wilson has harmonised his masterwork with that of Sir George Gilbert Scott a century earlier. Both architects have duly celebrated both the cerebral and the soul.

Michael Spens

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