Former Glory

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.

320px-euston_arch_1896

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.

poundbury

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.

oldkingscross

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.

stpanc

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.

What is it that they know?

I’m rarely prone to panic, and despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I pass through railway stations and airports without anxiety. It’s true that if I’m on a train, or on the Tube, an unaccompanied bag or box will nag at me until I see it repossessed, and I admit that I glance with a little apprehension at backpacks. I try hard to avoid racial stereotyping when I’m assessing the suicidal intent of my fellow passengers. But most of the time I’m entirely blasé about risk, not bravely uncaring, but unconscious or it. After all, the more we give in to fear, the more the terrorists are winning. And, as we all know when we do the arithmetic, the risks are greater from road traffic, mad cows and falling masonry.

That said, I don’t like to see well-armed soldiers patrolling in a shopping mall. Our LLP Group offices adjoin the seldom-visited Harfa Shopping Mall in Prague. The mall, built around four years ago, has been, I suppose, a commercial disaster, and as I pass through it every day between the metro station and my office, I note that yet more shops have closed and others, selling ever trashier trash, have taken their place. Tragically, Marks and Spencer closed a couple of months ago and I miss their biscuits terribly. Shoppers are sadly few and far between, except on those evenings when there’s an ice-hockey match in the O2 Arena next door.

So, why, suddenly are there gun-toting soldiers on the prowl? What do they know? It’s hard to imagine that Prague’s Harfa Shopping Mall would make a good target for terrorists. Or perhaps, that’s its very attraction. It’s such a soft target that it’s a perfect one. But if not terrorists, then what is there to fear? Even rival shopping malls have no good reason to provoke an outrage here. They’ve nothing to gain.

harfa soldiers

Far from being reassuring, the presence of soldiery makes me nervous. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. It’s like seeing the cages and walls that surround US Embassies all over the world. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. I walk on the other side of the street whenever possible.

And on my way home on the metro yesterday, six soldiers on patrol at Florenc station, boarded my carriage at the very last moment. They didn’t seem especially alert. I stood next to them, almost crushed up against a semi-automatic rifle, terrified that an inadvertent movement might be misinterpreted. Everyone tried to look relaxed about their presence, without entirely succeeding. I studied their uniforms (parachute regiment), weapons (real, and each of them with two) and demeanour (cheerful).

Perhaps they’ve been put on the streets to reassure us, but they have the opposite effect on me. If anything they make me more anxious. It’s the thought that we need protection as close as this. And it’s the knowledge that if a terrorist gang sprang into action, there’s little these brave soldiers could do about it.