31.7.07

AN AESTHETE'S RAILROAD READING. The Cranky Professor has favorable impressions of the rebuilding of St. Pancras.
I've always loved those 19th century train stations - and dismissed modernist scoffers who think that there's a disjunction between the function of the shed and the decoration of the station and hotel - this shot from Flickr shows the kind of thing that sets some critics off.
London still has St. Pancras and Paddington -- King's Cross never received a proper hotel at the bunters -- and a few of the other termini, intended more for commuters, remain true to their as-built form.

In North America, the head building would generally include general offices and seating for waiting passengers, with the hotel somewhere nearby. Philadelphia's Reading Terminal is the only intact example of the concept in the United States, albeit without the tracks. (In common with St. Pancras, the tracks at Reading Terminal are above street level.) In Chicago, the head building at Dearborn Station remains.

A London Times architecture critic makes favorable remarks on the work at St. Pancras. Cranky Professor quotes at length without comment. A few comments seem in order.
William Barlow’s shed behind the hotel, the engineering feat of its day, had become so crepuscular that walking in catapulted you back to some distant time between the age of steam and the InterCity 125. It was romantic, in a way, but more Miss Havisham than Celia Johnson, its few trains trundling off to Kettering and Leicester rather anticlimactic within a stupendous building clearly meant as the start of journeys to destinations more exotic.
At one time, St. Pancras and King's Cross offered the possibility of competing concourses. Did you want the Great Northern or the Midland to Leeds? If you were headed to Edinburgh, was your preference for a non-stop Flying Scotsman, or an all day scenic ride on The Waverley by way of Carlisle? Something more dramatic, if slightly more spatially separated, used to be available along Chicago's Canal Street. Would it be a Hiawatha or Twin Zephyr off the north or south concourse of Union Station, or a Twin Cities 400 at North Western? Was your preference the Empire Builder or North Coast Limited, or a City of Portland to Portland? Or the Varsity or the Viking to Madison? A resident of West Winnetka has the choice of the Milwaukee North or the Chicago and North Western North to this day, but that's Kettering and Leicester writ small.

St. Pancras was intended for something grander.

No bones about it, Barlow and Gilbert Scott made St Pancras to be the greatest station in the land. No, not a station – a cathedral, its Gothic pointed shed, the widest single-span arch of its age, apeing lofty medieval Gothic naves, and piled high with allusive decoration to stoke the imagination, and gird the loins for the adrenalin rush of newly fast travel and the future.

Stripped of soot, all this is back with a mighty bang. It’s like digitally remastering a crackly 78, or retouching scratchy Victorians in colour. St Pancras is bright. The shed’s immense glass roof is dazzlingly clear, shedding light on to the platforms below. Its metal girders are painted what was found to be the original baby blue – demanded, no less, by its first stationmaster, who requested an artificial sky to replace nature’s original. The brick and stone of Gilbert Scott’s architectural casing is, again, almost orange bright.

The carvings are crisp: you will never see more wrestling dragons on a building. The details, right down to the mammoth Addams Family brackets and drainpipes out of a medieval torture chamber, are lavish. Whole new walls, arches and arcades, never intended by Barlow and Gilbert Scott, have been built but so dedicated has been the mimicry that you’d be hard-pressed to spot them. The building sings. And what a sweet note.

One could enter London in the royal manner, rather than scuttle in like a rat, which is the impression Penn Station or London's Euston, both "redeveloped" in the last gasp of Modernism, give. And the work is being done in order to provide additional capacity.

There are five stations now housed in the building, where once there was one: the First Capital Connect line to Brighton and Bedford, deep underground; the Midland Mainline to Sheffield, and, from 2009, the North Kent line to Margate, both housed in the shed behind Barlow’s (feeble in comparison, but at least neat and simple); five Tube lines; and the new Eurostar terminal.

[Architect Alistair] Lansley’s trick has been to keep such complexity simple. Each mini-station has its own quarter, sewn together by one main aisle – the Arcade – and two transepts. The Arcade runs north to south and is cut, with English Heritage’s blessing, like a canyon below the original station’s platform level, with vistas up to the roof, 37m (121ft) above. The transepts run east to west, one through the original building, the other, in use for a couple of years now, where it meets the new shed. The cross-section is as simple as the plan.

A station that's integral with the surrounding neighborhood, much like Grand Central Terminal in New York, which caters to a great deal of foot traffic not headed to or from a train, is better able to avoid "redevelopment." Compare Chicago's Union Station, which was redone with the expectation that commuters would be headed directly to work or to their trains, or the misconceived Bicentennial "visitor center" that once mutilated Washington Terminal.
By making the building for the first time porous north to south and east to west at ground level, St Pancras is no longer a barrier, but integral to the street pattern. By making it attractive, with a farmers’ market, a gastropub (the Sir John Betjeman), independent stores and the much-heralded longest champagne bar in the world, hard against the trains under Barlow’s roof, it becomes a place in which to linger, not speed through. It becomes a civilised place, as it was in Barlow’s day, when station tea was served in porcelain, not polystyrene.
I do wish, however, that experts on topics other than railroads limit their editorializing.
British rail is glamorous again, and just in the nick of time, too, as cheap flights start to lose their lustre. The French may have the TGV, the greatest train network in the world and warm buttery croissants waiting for you when you arrive. But we’ll always have St Pancras. And a pork pie and a pint in the Sir John Betjeman.
I feel a clinic on serious railroading coming on.

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