Popular wisdom states that the French are brilliant at grands projets while the British are footsloggers when it comes to infrastructure. When visitors from Paris arrive next week at London’s newly restored St Pancras railway station, they may wonder whether the high-speed train has actually taken them out of France at all. For their point of arrival is a masterpiece.
The £800m refurbishment of the original Victorian station was delivered on time and on budget – a notable success. It forms part of a £5.8bn project to cut 20 minutes off the fastest journey times between London and Paris and Brussels. The achievement goes well beyond efficiency and good management.
The sympathetic transformation of the train shed, which, when it opened in 1868 was the largest ever enclosed space, recreates the sense of wonder that 19th-century passengers must have experienced on seeing the original structure. At the same time, the practical needs of 21st-century travellers are covered by high-tech ticket halls underneath the old platforms. This vast undercroft is also home to a wide range of independent shops and restaurants – a welcome change from the unremitting roll-call of high street names that most often describes departure lounge retailing. The rebuilding also includes the restoration of the red-brick Gothic exuberance of what was the Midland Grand Hotel, designed by George Gilbert Scott and due to open again in 2009.
Two lessons emerge from St Pancras renewed. The first is that tastes change so fast it is hard to make aesthetic judgments that will not be regretted years later.
Only in 1967 was Scott’s building offered protection after decades of neglect. The reprieve from demolition followed a campaign by the poet Sir John Betjeman, a national treasure who himself fell in and out of favour. The once-magnificent Doric arch outside Euston station, a victim of planning vandalism, remains a much-missed landmark. The next time the planners reach for the wrecking ball, they should make sure that they are not bulldozing tomorrow’s popular heritage.
The second lesson is that stations have a powerful role as public spaces. They are places of first and last judgments on a city. Parks and squares can offer valuable respite from urban pressures but only if there is an opportunity to visit them. Railway stations play a necessary part in many city-dwellers’ days and so have the power to raise the spirits. St Pancras realises that potential. In its noble ambition to be not just a terminus but a destination, we wish it every success.
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