As London’s King’s Cross Square opens at last, Ike Ijeh considers the chequered history of the capital’s spaces - and their likely future
Late last month one of London’s biggest and most eagerly anticipated public space projects of recent years opened. King’s Cross Square was designed by Stanton Williams Architects and replaces the reviled “temporary” corrugated shed that had served as the station’s woefully inadequate concourse since the seventies. The square is the culmination of a heroic 16-year £500m redevelopment of the terminus that has not only seen it restored to its former Victorian glory but, in the shape of the new square and John McAslan’s spectacular (if dark) Western Concourse, has masterfully rejuvenated the station’s historic fabric with vigorous contemporary interventions.
But of all the welcome changes at King’s Cross, it is the square which will enjoy the highest profile and leave the biggest impact on the capital’s public realm. The space completes the station’s restoration and provides the first opportunity in well over a century to view the sober muscularity of Lewis Cubitt’s fine 1852 facade in an uncluttered state.
But the square is also significant for London, and perhaps even the country too. At a sprawling 7,000m², King’s Cross Square represents one of the largest single additions of public spaces to London since the part-pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square in 2003. It also proves that increasingly it is infrastructure that is becoming the biggest procurer of public space.
In the eighties and early nineties glossy commercial developments like London’s Broadgate and Birmingham’s Brindleyplace were responsible for creating a new generation of public spaces. During the build-up to the millennium and throughout the 2000s new public spaces were often procured through major cultural projects like the British Museum Great Court and Somerset House. And now, as presumably recession-proof railway infrastructure is renewed and expanded across London, and indeed the country by means of landmark projects like Crossrail, Birmingham New Street and perhaps even the controversial HS2, this appears to be the unlikely new sector where the greatest opportunities for public space renewal are to be found.
The completion of King’s Cross also marks an important anniversary in London’s public realm. Ten years ago, Trafalgar Square was finally partially pedestrianised. This remains a watershed moment within the city’s recent public realm history. But did it lead to the brave new dawn of greater quality and quantity of public spaces across the city? Or has it been business as usual since?
Months before the reopening of Trafalgar Square, London’s pioneering congestion charge was introduced. Ostensibly devised to reduce congestion levels in the city which it did, briefly, for a time after its implementation, it was also hoped that reducing the amount of vehicles on the road would lead to a more equitable distribution of space between the car and pedestrian across the city and perhaps pave the way for more pedestrianisation schemes.
So, 10 years after these two landmark events and in a city that has since weathered several political administrations, a changing skyline and the regeneration dynamo of 2012 Olympic Games, the opening of King’s Cross Square provides a unique opportunity to assess the current state of public spaces across the city today and to try and predict what might be in store for the future.
The political perspective
Back in 2003 the situation looked promising. London mayor Ken Livingstone provided critical political support for the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, introduced the congestion charge, invited legendary Danish urban guru Jan Gehl to London to compile a landmark report on how to improve the capital’s public spaces and spearheaded the revolutionary 100 Public Spaces programme, arguably the biggest single drive to increase the quality and quantity of London’s public spaces in its history.
But by the end of his mayoralty, road journey times were no longer falling, virtually none of Gehl’s recommendations had been implemented and just five spaces out of the 100 had been built.
Boris Johnson, Livingston’s successor, hasn’t fared much better. One of his first acts as mayor was to scrap redevelopment plans for Parliament Square, thereby sustaining the national absurdity that renders the heart of the “Mother of Parliaments” and a Unesco World Heritage Site virtually inaccessible by pedestrians.
Johnson’s alternative to the 100 Public Spaces programme was the Great Spaces initiative, a breezy bureaucratic concoction which offered each London borough just £6,000 to improve their public spaces. (It cost £25m to part-pedestrianise Trafalgar Square.) The mayor’s recently established Roads Task Force, which promises a long-term strategy for roads and major investment in street management, may well make amends for former transgressions. But even this primarily focuses on roads rather than spaces and “transforming the urban realm” is only a solitary, woolly proclamation among a long list of more perfunctory traffic concerns.
Banning cars is by no means the only way to improve public spaces but it remains the most drastic and effective means to separate the car and the pedestrian. It is also the most complicated. In London at least, it is extremely difficult to remove cars from areas where they have been previously permitted. It took 17 years of bitter argument and prevarication before just a relatively small portion of Trafalgar Square was pedestrianised and, while unthinkable now, it required decades of tough lobbying to transform Horse Guards Parade and Somerset House from unkempt ministerial car parks to the grand civic set-pieces they are today.
It was hoped that the introduction of the congestion charge would, by reducing traffic levels, increase the amount of space within the built environment available for pedestrians. In reality, this hasn’t really happened and Trafalgar Square is still the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of new or improved public space in London since 2003 has been redeveloped rather than new space and the road lobby remains a powerful force in both local and central government.
Despite the fact that cities around the world closely monitored the congestion charge when it was first introduced, not one other UK city has copied the policy and only two internationally, Stockholm and Milan, have introduced similar schemes of their own.
One area where the congestion charge has directly impacted the public realm is the City of London. By 2003, the City’s willingness to facilitate car use had been severely dampened by the “Ring of Steel” traffic restriction measures erected in the nineties in the wake of IRA terrorist attacks. In a zone where traffic levels had already fallen, the introduction of the congestion charge provided an opportunity to further improve urban space. Consequently, the City’s Streetscene Challenge programme was introduced months after the congestion charge and has since dramatically improved dozens of public spaces within the City of London , such as Guildhall Yard and the Old Bailey.
If we briefly put aside the fact that the City and its mercantile tenants are wealthy enough to fund lavish public realm improvement projects of this kind, Streetscene Challenge may well set a precedent for the rest of London and the country. The programme does not necessarily focus on pedestrianisation, although this has happened in limited instances. It is much more about employing sensitive, innovative design to achieve a fairer balance between cars and pedestrians across the public realm.
This less invasive, more incremental approach is increasingly being considered as a serious alternative to full pedestrianisation, particularly in a city like London whose public realm is often regulated by a tortuously complex management and ownership hierarchy.
The shared surface approach adopted at Dixon Jones’ Exhibition Road is arguably the most obvious recent example of this newer approach to public space design but it is also evident in other excellent schemes like Atkins’ Oxford Circus crossing and BDP’s Mount Street Public Realm improvements in Mayfair.
Cars are not the enemy of urban life and they add to the cosmopolitan energy and buzz of cities. Banning them entirely would be as practical or desirable as banning pavements. But doing more to limit their impact within the public realm could yield enormous urban, social and environmental benefits.
So what for the future of public spaces in London? Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams Architects believes that infrastructure developments may well hold the key. “There is now a growing cultural acceptance within the infrastructure community that public spaces are important.” Crossrail provides yet another example of public space-friendly railway expansion and Stanton Williams is also working on the new public realm around Tottenham Court Road station.
Even among architects, public space was once thought of as the sole preserve of planners and landscape architects, a prejudice that did deep harm to the character and connectivity of our built environment. But this too is changing, as Stanton explains: “For us, the spaces between buildings are just as important as the buildings themselves and architects are uniquely placed to co-ordinate all the incredibly complicated negotiations, enabling and consultations required to deliver public space schemes.”
There can be little doubt that London’s public spaces are in a healthier condition in 2013 than they were in 2003. The city contains more public spaces; a number - such as East Architecture’s Bermondsey Square and Rolfe Judd’s St Martin’s Courtyard - reveal exceptional design quality; and, from Battersea to Stratford, awareness of public space has become embedded into the commercial and residential developer mindset.
However, particularly within central London, too many spaces are still held to ransom by the dominance of the car. By pedestrianisation or other means, a redistribution of civic priorities is still required in order to unlock the enormous potential of the city’s existing urban fabric and achieve a more balanced public realm.
But there are still serious problems. Rather than ignoring the public realm, as was once the case, too many developers and even architects now cynically commoditise public space as a box-ticking, planning expediency without genuinely investigating or understanding the critical prevailing issues of context and character upon which its success depends.
Public space is the lifeblood of any city; it is the urban lens through which cities project an image of themselves. It is public spaces and not buildings alone that anchor regeneration and make cities liveable, sustainable and, ultimately, human. In a city like London, whose complex tradition of urban development both tests and intensifies the concept of public space, they are even more important.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, seminal London biographer Steen Eiler Rasmussen, struck by the humanist temperament of London’s architecture and public realm, dubbed the capital “the most civilised city on earth”. Renewing our public spaces is central to recapturing this laudable legacy.
KING’S CROSS SQUARE
Removing the old concourse was merely the start of the design challenges on the new King’s Cross Square; there were plenty more to follow. “During the public consultations some people asked why there aren’t any fountains,” reveals Alan Stanton of architects Stanton Williams. “What they couldn’t know is that at certain points across the square, London Underground tunnels and infrastructure are only 30cm below the ground.” In addition to the labyrinth of subterranean infrastructure, the architects also had to incorporate three giant ventilation vents into the scheme which protrude up to two storeys above the ground. Stanton Williams’ approach was to express these as part of the square’s architecture by essentially turning them into louvred granite pavilions.
A semi-enclosed canopy attaches the biggest of these into an underground staircase entrance thereby preserving, despite its regrettable bulk, critical views towards Cubitt’s facade. The square would be better without these disparate if unavoidable protrusions, but the architects have done their best in minimising their visual impact and incorporating them into the overall scheme. Far worse is John McAslan’s pointless canopy which inexplicably obscures the arcade at the base of Cubitt’s facade.
Much of the street furniture along the square, such as benches or vents, curves as it comes out of the ground to suggest the hidden activity below. Stanton also explains that the granite stripes that extend across the square were designed to recall the railway lines that terminate behind the station’s facade. The stripes also accentuate the hard-edged, urban feel that is appropriate for the square’s busy location. However, this being England trees are still in evidence but wisely these are primarily and discreetly grouped to the west to provide shade along the entrance axis to the Western Concourse. This theme of shelter, as expressed by the underground entrance canopy, is one also explored at Stanton Williams’ celebrated Tower Hill Square in the City.
The final ingredient at King’s Cross is one so often forgotten in London public spaces: nocturnal lighting. A sophisticated and dramatic scheme has been implemented here, three soaring LED columns help provide ambient lighting and Cubitt’s facade is also subtly floodlit. King’s Cross Square is a fine addition to London’s public realm and will doubtless form an energising gateway to the capital for the millions disgorged there from around the UK and, via Eurostar next door, Europe. It has been well worth the wait.