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Cool, calm, connected

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John McAslan + Partners’ makeover of London’s King’s Cross Station, with the dramatic geometry of its Western Concourse roof, is a fitting rehabilitation of Cubitt’s fine rail terminus, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

It might seem ironic that Thomas Cubitt’s King’s Cross station, which opened in 1852 and was lauded as a proto-Modernist exemplar of functional design by Nikolaus Pevsner, ultimately declined into one of London’s most dysfunctional, blighted and stigmatised must-not-see destinations.

It would be unfair to say that Pevsner’s only criterion was the station’s architectural expression. He was of course correct to praise this, especially for the way the twin Rundbogenstil lunettes of its south facade, transcending Victor Lenoir’s 1852 Montparnasse terminus in Paris on which it was modelled clearly and without ornamentation, expressed Cubitt’s barrel-vaulted train sheds within, whereas 13 years earlier Philip Hardwick fig-leafed Euston Station behind a Doric screen. But Pevsner was also alive to the extreme clarity of Cubitt’s diagram for the terminus, which had departures platforms below the west vault, supported by the facilities in the flanking Western Range, where passengers entered the terminus.

At the end of the arrivals platforms, which were below the east vault, passengers could either pass through a brick arcade below one of the 20m-diameter lunettes, as if entering London through a triumphal arch, or they could travel by cab from a thoroughfare in the flanking Eastern Range.

Today, 160 years later, after five years of open-heart surgery, the terminus has been transformed by John McAslan + Partners, reborn with a new Western Concourse, rationalised supporting accommodation, a new overflow platform and a new Southern Square (designed by Stanton Williams Architects).

There was little wrong with the original design which, as Cubitt said, aimed at ‘fitness for its purpose and the characteristic expression of that purpose’. But the goalposts had moved. As London’s population grew, more passengers used the terminus. King’s Cross developed as a metro interchange which ultimately served six lines and became the city’s busiest transport hub. Circulation within the Western Range was blocked when it was damaged by World War II bombing and in the 1970s a lean, mean, temporary concourse was tacked onto the south facade.

This became known as ‘the bungalow’, presumably because of its architectural configuration, leaving a narrow forecourt where people queued for buses alongside prostitutes touting for business. It was as beyond caring and ‘in yer face’ as London gets. There was always someone who wanted to stand where you were standing. There was always someone who wanted to walk where you were walking. It was hardly a place where you would choose to linger on your way back from an excursion out of London.

To compound its image problems, historically endemic to railway termini, which tend to generate short-stay accommodation and low-life demi-mondes, a major fire which broke out in King’s Cross underground station in 1987 was a Titanic event for the ever-unpopular London Transport. Moreover, as air travel became a more competitive option, railways came to be seen as second best, tainted by a succession of accidents and the public’s perception of railway staff as rude and unhelpful.

This was aggravated by dreary, well-intended backfiring statements such as British Rail’s 1980s ‘We’re getting there’ rebranding campaign and a line in classic excuses such as ‘It’s the wrong type of snow’.

On the positive side, the project involved opportunities to co-ordinate with the Regent Quarter mixed use regeneration scheme, the £2 billion King’s Cross Central mixed development project and the redevelopment of St Pancras Station, completed in 2007 and augmented by the addition of Eurostar and High Speed One connections. It was also an opportunity to improve the station’s fabric, to make it safe and presentable and to retain features of historic interest.

As the lead architect and masterplanner, McAslan investigated options including an addition which wrapped around the south and west sides of the terminus and a prohibitively expensive insertion at the train shed’s south end, which would have involved moving the platforms’ terminations 120 metres northwards. They settled on a clear, practical diagram, adding a new entrance concourse to the west, with the ticket office reinstated in its original location in the Western Range. From here, passengers proceed to platforms by passing through one of two new barrier lines, the first on the ground floor within a new opening in the Western Range and another at mezzanine level, which leads to a new footbridge crossing the train sheds, with lifts and escalators connecting to the platforms’ mid-points, helping to minimise travel distances.

Arriving passengers have the option of passing through the barrier lines to the south of the platforms and proceeding below McAslan’s new, free-standing canopies towards Stanton Williams’ soon-to-be-completed King’s Cross Square, or they can exit via the Western Concourse, conceived as a gateway to King’s Cross Central, using the new mezzanine-level bridge or the new opening in the Western Range. Escalators and lifts connect with London Underground’s Great Northern Ticket Hall below the Western Concourse and a new subsurface shared services yard integrates and consolidates the transport hub’s complex, varied services behind the scenes.

‘The new concourse is three times as large as what existed before,’ says chairman and practice founder John McAslan. ‘Building to the west worked best, as it offered the possibility of embedding the surface structures.’

The semi-circular footprint of the Western Concourse, Europe’s largest single-span station structure, circumscribes the perimeter of the ticket hall and shares its locus with the arc of Thomas Cubitt’s Great Northern Hotel, completed in 1854 and scheduled to reopen this year following a makeover by Dexter Moren Associates. Because this locus sat within the footprint of the original ticket office, where it projects from the Western Range facade, a truly semi-circular concourse would only have been possible if this Grade I-listed projection were demolished or if it did not share its locus with the hotel.

The answer involved removing two small segments of the semi-circle, so primary radial rib members form the edge of the roof where it meets the Western Range and are oblique to its facade. The ovoidal columns of the central funnel which supports the ribs strictly follow the concourse’s radial geometry.

Some consider circular plan forms problematic. In small buildings they should be approached with care and may be constricting, but for many the objection is stylistic. McAslan seems comfortable with these forms, whether working on existing buildings, such as London’s Roundhouse or the De La Warr Pavilion, or new ones. You might question why the hotel, hardly in the same league as the station, was a major influence on the concourse’s form. Although the hotel’s footprint was generated by the Fleet Sewer and an underground railway, it was not part of a coherent urban design strategy. Demolition of the Grade II-listed hotel was possible but approval would have caused delay and the project team chose to work with it.

The concourse’s semi-circular form, though structurally less efficient for a shell roof than a complete circle and so requiring deep stiffening trusses on its east side, has further advantages. It enhances the site layout by reconciling the offset between the main and suburban train sheds and, while deliberate symbolic use of the Rundbogenstil and wheel-like circular plan forms for railway stations would be simplistic, the concourse’s geometry is a powerful and much-needed unifying device.

The swirling vortex of its diagrid morphs and drops away into its double-curved central funnel, like a lacy Elizabethan ruff, with no visible connections between its CHS members, clearly articulated from the box-section radial ribs. The LED-illuminated white finish to this steelwork and the myriad mosaics which line the undulating mezzanine bulkheads, the granite floor and McAslan’s range of product design components all help to establish unity.

If the structurally honest rectangular-section steel bananas which thrust through the concourse fascia seem abrupt and some interfaces with the Western Range a little hairy, the new external spaces to the west and south, the largest added to London in recent years, have the much-needed calm, uncluttered, civic and humanist qualities of Piero della Francesca’s città ideale, which encourage people to pause and relax. Like the provision for passenger flows and concealed services, and the careful restoration of Cubitt’s work, they demonstrate that much of the best design is invisible.

This is great railway architecture, standing comparison with Victorian exemplars and with recent projects, including Grimshaw’s Waterloo Eurostar terminus, Farrell’s Asian megastations (AJ 02.12.10), with which it has stylistic affinities, and the contributions of Calatrava and Foster + Partners to the renaissance of this building type.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for the King’s Cross Station redevelopment by John McAslan + Partners

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