The proposed rebuilding of london’s euston station is an opportunity to atone for a great architectural crime.
Monday, 1st October 2007
There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, or forgotten. One such is the demolition of the so-called Euston ‘Arch’ in 1961, which meant that London lost the greatest monument of the Railway Age (Fig. 1). When Euston Station was built as the terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway – the first great trunk railway line linking the capital with the provinces, engineered by Robert Stephenson – the directors decided to celebrate this triumph of Man over Nature by announcing it with a Doric propylaeum or gateway (not a triumphal arch). Designed by Philip Hardwick, it was huge – the columns were 44ft high – and hugely expensive, but it was a gesture worth making and ancient Greek architecture, strangely perhaps, was associated with modernity. This noble structure commemorated, as Sir John Summerson put it, ‘as no other structure in the world the moment of supreme optimism in the marriage of steam and progress’.
When Euston was opened in 1837, nobody really knew how a railway terminus might evolve into a new architectural form. In consequence, the station grew in a piecemeal way and was never really satisfactory.
So it was not surprising that in the late 1950s British Railways proposed the complete rebuilding of Euston as part of its modernisation and electrification of the main line to the north-west and Scotland. Not only the early surviving cast-iron train sheds but also the grand but inconveniently sited and impractical Great Hall (Fig. 2) – designed by Hardwick’s son – inevitably had to go. The Arch was also in the way, but what made its demolition such a crime was that it could have been saved. Just before World War ii, the London Midland & Scottish Railway had also proposed the rebuilding of Euston, to an American-inspired design by Percy Thomas, but the Georgian Group proved to the directors that the propylaeum could be re-erected further south, on the Euston Road. The lms agreed.
No such arguments swayed the British Transport Commission, which claimed to be unable to afford to rebuild the Arch. Ultimately, the murderer was the Prime Minister, that cynical Whig politician Harold Macmillan. In October 1961, a deputation went to see him to plead that, if all else failed, the Arch should be carefully dismantled and the stones numbered for re-erection elsewhere. ‘Macmillan listened – or I suppose he listened’, recalled the architectural writer J.M. Richards, ‘he sat without moving with his eyes apparently closed. He asked no questions; in fact he said nothing except that he would consider the matter. A statement was issued later to the effect that the Government had decided not to intervene’.
The gratuitous destruction of the Euston Arch was never forgotten and it encouraged a change in the climate of opinion that prevented British Railways from doing away with both St Pancras and King’s Cross stations just a few years later. But in 1961, the image of the railways represented by the propylaeum, that relic of the steam age, was simply unacceptable at a time when Britain, desperate to appear modern, had surrendered to the Gadarene worship of the car.
Opened in 1968, the new Euston certainly reflected the tawdry glamour of its time. The only architectural gesture was the large concourse or booking hall – then uncomfortably empty but today cluttered with kiosks (Fig. 4). The sense of occasion, of adventure, that the great Victorian termini gave to the traveller was entirely – deliberately – absent. Euston wanted to look like an airport, just as the interiors of trains were now designed like airliners. ‘What masterpiece arose on the site of the old station? No masterpiece’, wrote John Betjeman, who had fought so hard for the Arch. ‘A great hall of glass looks like a mini-version of London Airport. …I have heard the excuse for this disastrous and inhuman structure, which seems to ignore passengers, that British Railways originally intended to make it pay by adding multi-storey hotels and office blocks to the flat roof.’
Betjeman was right. br’s plans had fallen foul of the Labour government’s ban on office building in central London. Eventually, in 1974-78, three squat black office towers designed by Colonel Seifert’s firm were built in front of the station – on the land where the Arch could have been re-erected. Nobody – surely? – can really love the new Euston, and now it is proposed for replacement. Not that rebuilding is proposed for the benefit of railway travellers: it is only because of the immense value of the site. A development of office, residential and, of course, ‘retail and leisure’ space that involves building on top of the platforms as well as replacing the Seifert towers is now envisaged in a deal between the developers British Land and Network Rail. The only loss is likely to be the concourse, which, although architecturally vapid, is at least a grand space worthy of a public building (Fig. 4). However, the scheme offers an opportunity that ought to be seized – the recreation of the Euston Arch.
Why not? A decade ago, in 1996, the historian Dan Cruickshank attempted to launch the Euston Arch Trust, dedicated to rebuilding the propylaeum. The estimated cost then was £5m. Even if that figure would need to be doubled, or even tripled, today, it would still be comparative peanuts compared with British Land’s proposed budget of £1bn – of which £250m is to be spent on improving the station. The Arch can be placed where the Georgian Group suggested: on the Euston Road between the old station entrance lodges. It would, of course, have to be a replica. Cruickshank discovered that over 60% of the Bramley Fall stone used for the Arch survives, some dumped in the River Lea, some in the garden of Mr Valori, the demolition contractor, in Bromley. But the demolition was brutal and the stones are too badly damaged for reuse.
A replica is justified. Recreation from scratch is both possible and necessary when important buildings are destroyed in war – as with the Frauenkirche in Dresden – so why not with a victim of vandalism? Hardwick’s working drawings survive, so rebuilding is a practical possibility. Despite the impression given in J.C. Bourne’s evocative watercolour of the Arch under construction (Fig. 3), the propylaeum was not built as the Greeks would have built it. The columns were hollow, and wrought iron as well as brick was used to construct the entablature and pediment. The Arch could therefore be built again, using modern methods of construction.
A new Euston Arch would be a powerful symbol. Just as Greek Revival architecture represented modernity in the 1830s, so today it would symbolise the revival of Britain’s railways after the disastrous century of the motor car – a revival tangibly represented by the reopening of St Pancras next door as the Eurostar terminal. All that is required is for English Heritage and the London Borough of Camden to insist that recreating the propylaeum is a condition for planning permission for rebuilding Euston. It would be a fine way of atoning for a great crime.
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