November 4, 2012

Way Out

Aesthetes in mass turned out for what turned out to be a swell party when Queen Elizabeth II — with 1,000 guests (hope you were among them), the Royal Philharmonic, and masses of champagne — declared the magnificently restored St. Pancras train station open.  London had gained something as significant as New York’s Grand Central Station because the terminus has given the city a great new public space that is much more than a station. It is a destination!

The station is a triumph as an engineering feat and as a meticulous restoration of a Grade I Listed Building, which puts it in the same category as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I visited with an architect friend, a railway man through and through.  This quiet man has an instinctive grasp of 19th-century railway architecture and has a miraculous gift of understanding how to adapt, and enhance it for the 21st century.

It is hard to imagine that back in the 1960s, the Midland Hotel of George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) and the amazing single-span iron-and-glass train shed of William Barlow (1812-1902) and Rowland Ordish was under threat.

A few years earlier, the grand Euston Station and Arch had been cynically sacrificed on the altar of railway modernization at the whim of the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan. It was only the efforts of John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner and a great public campaign that saved St. Pancras and secured for it the Grade I listing that have protected it to this day.

Listing alone was not enough. The station went into the doldrums for years and the Hogwarts-style Gothic hotel remained closed. It was the decision to bring a high-speed link to St. Pancras that changed everything.

The key has been to bring together all the new uses for the whole site and to give them an architectural character that is of an appropriate quality to rejuvenate the buildings. This is not a facelift. It is a three-dimensional architectural exercise that established the quality of the total environment.

There had to be new concrete platforms for Eurostar beneath the great roof; a complete new station extension for the regional Midland Main Line; a new Thameslink station; a Marriott Renaissance hotel in the Gilbert Scott Gothic fantasy, with new rooms to harmonize alongside designed by architects RHWL and Richard Griffiths; new shops and flats developed by the Manhattan Loft Corp. in the upper floors of the original hotel.

The greatest architectural triumph is Alastair Lansley’s brilliant stroke to create theatrical openings from the undercroft, so that you will glide on escalators that take you up to the platforms under the soaring sky-blue iron-and-glass roof.

In the undercroft — the space beneath the platforms — you will now wander between the processions of Victorian cast-iron columns dealing with tickets, luggage and security as an elegant prelude to the splendor of the station itself.  The finishes are superb: wooden floors with slate surrounds newly made Gothic doors and everywhere the glow of original brickwork, Minton tiles and granite and carved-stone decoration.

The station clock is back and beneath it a giant sculpture by Paul Day of an embracing couple, sentimental perhaps but poignant too. Is he going off to war, was it a brief encounter, will they meet again? 

It overlooks the longest champagne bar in Europe, where you can drink and watch the arrivals and departures.  

St. Pancras revives the romance of rail. 
Why fly?