St Pancras station is, as we know, a remarkable restoration of a Victorian masterpiece of art and engineering. But that doesn’t mean it’s a brilliant building
I have been writing reviews on those BBC2 documentaries on the refitting of St Pancras, so I thought I’d better go and look for myself. It so happened that a chum of mine with a practice in Dartmoor was visiting the British Library at the time, so we agreed to go and look at it together.
We agreed a rendezvous at “the Meeting”, an enormous sculpture by Paul Day at the south end of the tracks. You’d think that the sensible place to locate a 3.5m high artistic reference point would be under the high point of the barrel roof, where everyone could see it from a distance. But you’d be wrong. Although I don’t like the piece much, there were a lot of people photographing it and no doubt many were turned on by 600mm-high brass stilettos – although the ankle strap was nixed by the commissioners for being too tarty.
Building devoted a large part of its 19 October issue to the development of this station and one of the things that struck me when I read it was that there didn’t seem to be a single designer in charge. This made me even more intrigued by how they’d restored the old building, designed the new one and added it on. How had they made it all work? And did it really feel like the gateway to the Continent – the sort of place where you’d be compelled to buy a flute of Piper-Heidsieck at a champagne bar?
It could have all been a lot worse. The BBC’s programme didn’t capture the scale of this grand recycling project. It is very impressive. But it isn’t really a knockout. A few years ago I was changing trains in Lille on my first Eurostar excursion. I got out of my comfortable seat in the lounge, directly over the platform, walked down the stairs my ticket indicated and ended up practically opposite the door to our seats. “The French have really got this trains business sorted,” I thought.
What I first thought as I wandered about on the various levels at St Pancras was: “Why is the roof of the new section of the station so gloomy?” There’s nothing of the exuberance of Grimshaw’s roof at Waterloo. This is even more surprising when you consider that the Victorian vault over the original concourse is so miraculously light and airy.
Too many designers having a go at it, that’s why. It’s well built, and looks okay, but my chum thought some of the detailing was a bit more Wickes than Foster or Grimshaw. There are hundreds of metres of cantilevered stainless steel and glass balustrading for instance, so why is this detail so charmless and municipal?
It’s well built, and looks okay, but my chum thought some of the detailing was a bit more Wickes than Foster or Grimshaw
I suppose, like all transport developments these days, one has to ask oneself how it works as a shopping centre. When Roy Strong first came up with the revolutionary idea of putting a cafe in the V&A, there was a poster that went something like “Brilliant cafe with an excellent museum attached”. This is a brilliant shopping centre with international railway terminus attached.
“What is the point,” my colleague asked, “of taking great sections of the floor level out so there are atriums connecting the platform levels with the shops below if one is going to put a bloody great flight of steps in the middle of the space so you can’t see along the concourse? And why is nothing going on around the parked trains at the entrance except paving enclosed by a glass fence?”
What’s more, if you need something to read in the train you’d probably be better off grabbing something from WH Smiths while walking (no escalators!) from King’s Cross, as you wouldn’t be able to work out how to get to the right shop once in the main drag.
No doubt there will be enough people sloping off for Le Dirty Weekend to ensure that the champagne bar is well attended, but it’s hardly the sort of place you’d go for its own sake. There’s none of your sprightly Julyan Wickham-style marble and chrome here; the punters are squeezed between a parked train on one side and a glass wall on the other, sitting at a bar that appears to be finished with Pizza Hut-style woodgrain Formica.
However, just beyond it is a fine statue of Sir John Betjeman, more or less life size. The sculptor, Martin Jennings has captured the great poet looking up in admiration at Barlow’s magnificently restored roof, with his hand on his hat, and a slight billow in his bronze overcoat which says everything anybody needs to say about the magnificence of Victorian secular architecture, and the thrill of continental rail travel. If it wasn’t for Betjeman the whole of St Pancras would have probably been demolished. And even if a few tricks have been missed for breathing new life into it, it is still about a billion times better than Euston.
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell
Read Gus’ reviews of BBC2’s The 800 Million Pound Station at www.building.co.uk/blogs