London’s new gateway to travel and aspiration
Edwin Heathcote looks back at the origins of King’s Cross station, through to the design and opening of the aspirational new Western Concourse
King’s Cross station is one of the most superbly legible buildings in the world: its architecture is purely factual, and it explains itself unequivocally. There are two arches – one for arrivals and one for departures. A glass frontage makes the trains visible from the outside, and the platforms an extension of the public realm. The station is topped by a clock, reminding passengers that the railway runs on Greenwich Mean Time, which was adopted by the Railway Clearing House in 1847 so as to synchronize national train timetables. The station’s architecture tells you everything you need to know. When the architect, Lewis Cubitt, delivered the terminus to the Great Northern Railway in 1852, the building represented a new kind of order and efficiency.
But after the station’s completion that aura of order gradually frayed. The King’s Cross area became one of London’s apparently intractable socio-urban messes, an ill-co-ordinated and ugly tangle of road traffic and trains, with grumpy commuters, beggars and lost tourists thronging narrow pavements. A series of poorly thought-out ‘temporary’ extensions to the station, along with the long, deep sleep of the formerly derelict St Pancras station just to the west and the dead yards of the railway sidings within forbidding walls, all set cheekby-jowl with dense social housing, created a kind of leftover urbanity, a dirty friction. Yet here was an area that bounded both Bloomsbury, the heart of London’s academia, and the youthfully arty and ‘alternative’ zeitgeist of Camden. The King’s Cross area has the nation’s best transport connections, and is also a place where interesting collisions of class, and of immigrants and embedded locals, had created a rich, improvised life from the straggling residues of seemingly defunct buildings. Today, industrial lofts mingle with hip bars and creative studios; the rate of cultural and commercial change has accelerated.
The trick, for the borough of Camden’s planners and Network Rail, has been to envisage infrastructure not as an obstacle, but as a transport and civil utility. For decades, the King’s Cross area was stymied by its endless goods yards and tracks, its old engine sheds and loading docks, and the no-man’s-lands alongside them: decaying relics of an age of awesome engineering and national ambition that, until the turn of the millennium, seemed too distant, and too legendary, to comprehend.
Recent years have seen a remarkable resurrection of King’s Cross station as a hub, in all the best possible senses. The British Library, completed to the west of St Pancras station in 1997 after a painful near-quartercentury gestation, has proved one of the city’s great public buildings; Colin St John Wilson’s monumental design anchored the area in the tradition of Bloomsbury academia, subsequently reinforced by the refurbishment of the Wellcome Trust buildings half a mile along Euston Road. And now we witness the first site scrapings of the vast Francis Crick Institute scientific research centre on a lot behind the library. That educational tradition has been further emphasised by the conversion of the huge granaries behind King’s Cross station into a new home for Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, an anchor-point in the meshing of this disparate collection of post-industrial architectural salvage into a promising landscape of learning.
But the most profound transformation has been made in barely visible engineering, in the complex web of rail and Underground facilities that snake above, beneath and around King’s Cross station in what is one of the world’s most extraordinary archaeologies of transport.
At St Pancras, the flamboyant Victorian Gothic architecture of the Midland Grand Hotel has been resurrected – as the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel – into a series of urbane spaces that overlook the platforms below William Henry Barlow’s gorgeously generous barrel-vaulted St Pancras train shed (1868). From here, trains whisk passengers over to France via the Channel Tunnel. It took the inheritors of the much-derided British Rail to create a 21st-century station that is as stripped back and intelligent as it is sophisticated and elegant. The St Pancras redevelopment is a self-effacing piece of work that revivifies the existing structure with panache.
The operational, architectural and structural transformation of King’s Cross station – led by Network Rail, designed by John McAslan & Partners and engineered by Arup – is the most notable component of this extraordinary transport revival. The rationalisation of the immensely complex station infrastructure has produced an outcome of real clarity, with the station reemerging as a piece of architecture with clear urban intent: a civic transport hub, rather than the series of obstacles it once was.
The semicircular canopy of King’s Cross station’s new Western Concourse echoes the curve of the Great Northern Hotel next door, which is being revived as a boutique hotel, and has created a grand new covered public space to counterbalance the planned resurrection of the Cubitt plaza in front of the station. This is genuine public architecture that will touch countless lives, an exemplary demonstration of how architecture can have great, and ramifying, effects. Some 55 million people will use King’s Cross station each year, and for many it will be the gateway to London. The challenge has been to produce a transformation that is also a connective piece of city reflecting the diverse character of the area; to create a new district that meshes with, and energises, the area’s historic grittiness and tightly knit urban grain. There was no room for a ‘blandscape’ of freestanding newness here. London’s extraordinary urban complexity has made it difficult for the city to create ambitious, multi-modal infrastructure and architecture in its historic streets.
The rebirth of King’s Cross station proves that it can be done. The scheme is a bold and illuminating re-ordering of the last remaining dark urban void in central London. The railway terminus’s electrified rails, embedded in this great tableau of historic and twenty-firstcentury architecture at the corner of Euston Road and York Way, are helping to spark the station, and this part of London, back to life.