In the Sixties and Seventies the Poet Laureate John Betjeman campaigned vigorously (and eccentrically) to prevent the destruction of Britain’s great 19th-century buildings – most notably Euston Arch, which formed part of Euston Station in London, one of several vast Victorian railway stations built in the capital during the 19th century. Sadly, he failed to preserve the Arch, but he succeeded later in saving St Pancras.
Euston Station, along with the Arch, was entirely demolished, and replaced with a hideous, now shabby and crumbling set of 1960s buildings. It is no joy to depart from or arrive at today’s Euston Station. The low-ceilinged railway shed is a stark contrast to the soaring arches of those at King’s Cross and St Pancras. It is hardly surprising that Euston Station is now also being considered for demolition and redevelopment. No voices are raised in favour of its preservation, as far as I know.
But, of course, tastes change in time, and we sometimes come to appreciate buildings that we initially loathe, and vice versa. For example, I now loathe the childish post-modernist buildings of the 1980s that borrow ideas from everywhere and have none of their own, though they seemed quite fun at the time. But I still loathe the fake-archaic styles of Poundbury that Prince Charles loves so much, and which represents a complete rejection of progress and change, and I suspect that I always will.
Architectural la-la land.
There are some great buildings from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, but so much was so badly built, using new and untested materials, that much of it became ugly, stained and unusable in just a year or two. It leaked, or people peed in it. These were times, also, when architects believed that they knew better how people should live than people themselves. Vision is one thing. but prescription is another.
Large Victorian buildings, on the other hand, were generally well built, and though they suffered the usual wear and tear, they stood and continued to stand reliably and safely, and continued to be enjoyed. Fortunately, destruction is no longer the fashion, and many of them have been restored and incorporated cleverly into larger schemes that combine the modern and the old, imaginatively and beautifully. Paddington Station, Marylebone Station, Liverpool Street Station, Fenchurch Street Station, Kings Cross Station and St Pancras Station are still largely intact and will probably stand for many centuries to come.
I was changing railway stations in London a few weeks ago, crossing the road from Kings Cross to St Pancras. It was a sunny evening and London looked splendid. Though building work and restoration in this vast area of railway shunting grounds, gasometers and warehouses isn’t complete, it’s wonderful, especially, to see King’s Cross restored to its former glory. For years the splendidly plain functionalist façade was obscured by a hideous Sixties pre-fab-style ticket hall.
Now the ticket hall has gone, and a vast modern replacement has been constructed to the side of the station, though it looks as if it has actually grown from the yellow brick.
The entire area between and behind the two stations has been brought to life with restaurants, bars, concert halls, apartment buildings and offices, giving the lie to the notion that areas surrounding railway stations must always be shabby. At the heart of the whole complex stand two great railway stations/hotels of very different styles- Kings Cross (1852), presciently modern and simple, and St Pancras (1868) unashamedly flamboyant and gothic.
Would Sir John Betjeman like what’s been done? Probably not entirely. He would decry the modern additions, I believe, but might at least have applauded their daring and the quality of their construction, certainly in preference to the shabby make-do of the Sixties and Seventies.