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Architecture: with its elegant simplicity, King's Cross Station has always offered a bold contrast to the flamboyant gothic of its St Pancras neighbour. Its recent modernisation is triumphantly in keeping with the original terminus building.

Travellers to York, Durham and Edinburgh might today leave from London Battlebridge were it not for the memory of a flee-standing police station at a major road junction on which stood a statue of King George IV. Long regarded as ridiculous and satirised by Pugin, the remains of this structure were cleared away seven years before King's Cross Station was opened in 1852. Built on the cheap and long thought of as shabby and inconvenient, this London railway terminus has no regal associations. But now, after the triumphant restoration of its neighbour, St Pancras, which has demonstrated that railways are of both the past and the future, King's Cross has also been given a new lease of life by a brilliant 550 [pounds sterling] million modernisation scheme that shows how sometimes--historic architecture can be enhanced by a new architectural vision.

For almost a century and a half the two great termini standing side by side at the end of the Euston Road have presented an extraordinary and instructive contrast: one gothic, the other classical; one expensive, the other economical; one, so some thought, harking back to the Middle Ages while the other anticipated Modernism. In 1872, that ferocious critic of the Gothic Revival, 3.T. Emmett (1828-98), described King's Cross as 'simple, characteristic, and true' in contrast to 'showy and expensive' St Pancras. A century later, John Betjeman recalled how in the 1930s 'we were all told to admire King's Cross for its functional simplicity' and 'despise St Pancras for its fussiness'. But comparison between the honest expression of the one with the elaborate front of the other was unfair, for whereas at King's Cross the railway company's hotel was a detached building on one side, at St Pancras the hotel--that gothic masterpiece by George Gilbert Scott (1811-78)--was sited in the obvious place, right in front of the great train shed by William Barlow (1812-1902). And now there is a new architectural contrast. St Pancras was made suitable for both national and international trains by adding a utilitarian steel and glass box at the rear. King's Cross, on the other hand, has been expanded with a new concourse which is covered by a most spectacular and elaborate new domed roof.

In celebrating the present, it is well to remember what might have been (Fig. 4). Notoriously, both stations were threatened with demolition in the 1960s to create a new joint station. Subsequent plans to develop the King's Cross Railway Lands, the area north of the termini consisting of gasometers, canals, railway tunnels and the buildings on the old goods yard site, would have seen almost everything--including the Great Northern Hotel (1854)--give way to a dense commercial development. Then came the Channel Tunnel and British Rail's crass scheme to burrow under half of London and build an international terminal underneath King's Cross--destroying many of the shabby but rewarding buildings to the east. In the end, local opposition and common sense prevailed--but it was a close-run thing. St Pancras was used for the Eurostar trains and most of the historic structures on the site have survived: the huge Granary Building in the goods yard has become the new home of Central St Martins; the German Gymnasium survives, in gainful use, and the Great Northern Hotel not only still stands but is the key to the success of the King's Cross scheme.


The Great Northern Railway was opened just in time to help transport the millions who visited the Great Exhibition in 185], but the permanent terminus was not ready for another year. Built on the site of a smallpox hospital, it was designed by Lewis Cubitt (1799-1883), of the famous family of builders. The plan was simple: two parallel arched train sheds, one for departures, the other for arrivals. Offices and the booking hall were placed along the western side. The front was but an arcaded screen wall, with two giant semi-circular windows indicating the train sheds behind (Fig. 1). A similar form of expression was adopted by 3acques Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867) for the Gare du Nord in the 1860s, but whereas the Paris faqade is richly treated, King's Cross is simply of yellow London stock brick: the only ornament is the central Italianate clock tower between the arches. The chairman of the GNR, Edmund Denison, was able to reassure shareholders that 'it is the cheapest building for what it contains and will contain that can be pointed out in London'.




The Great Northern Hotel followed two years later. A detached and more elaborate Italianate building to the west, six storeys high and also designed by Cubitt, it was gently curved in plan. This has puzzled subsequent generations, but the curve was not arbitrary for it followed the old irregular line of Pancras Road. But when the Midland Railway's St Pancras terminus was built the following decade, the street plan was rationalised and the little houses in front cleared away to leave King's Cross facing a triangular open space. At first this was occupied by a vendor of garden furniture; subsequently it was filled by a cast-iron canopy, various wooden shacks and cab shelters, and an entrance to the tube railways below, hiding the original open arcade of segmental arches. In the 1960s all this was cleared away only to be replaced by a new unsightly extension to the station.

This structure was required because King's Cross was long lacking in circulation space and other facilities, but the problems remained--hence the new concourse. Designed by John McAslan + Partners, this lies beside the station on what was once the site of the hotel's garden. It is a most happy solution, for it not only restores the original logic of the station's plan but retains the hotel and exploits its geometry, for by extending the curve a large semi-circular space has been enclosed, centred on the original 1852 entrance and ticket office (Fig. 2). This might have been covered by a utilitarian roof; instead, something in the best Victorian railway tradition has been created: a soaring diagrid shell structure of complex geometry designed by Arup which is high enough to enclose a long and pleasingly sinuous first-floor balcony to contain more of the retail facilities a modern station needs. With light coming down from the centre, this dramatic semidome is reminiscent of the oval roof of Leeds Corn Exchange by Cuthbert Brodrick (1821-1905) another spectacular Victorian structure--except that, in the centre, the ribs rise from the floor to spread out like a tree.

Meanwhile the handsome brick arcades and the arched roof of the original station have been cleaned and restored, and look magnificent (Fig. 3). All that remains to do is to clear away the 1960s rubbish in front of Kings Cross to expose Cubitt's original, elegant fagade as it was intended to be seen.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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