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Station masters

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed Paddington as 'a station after my own fancy . . . entirely metal as to all the general forms, arrangements and design . . . an engineering work'. Newcastle Central and Liverpool Lime Street may have been slightly earlier, yet the Great Western Railway's London terminus, completed in 1854, is arguably the most remarkable of Britain's great nineteenth-century stations and, indeed, one of the finest creations of the Victorian age.

The legendary figure of Brunel (who completed the gwr from London to Bristol in eight years, without the aid of modern machinery, and saw it as part of a transatlantic link) has inspired British High-Tech architects for more than 30 years. It is appropriate that Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (ngp) has been charged with the task of re-equipping Paddington for its expanding role in the twenty-first-century transport system. One of the peculiarities of Paddington is that it has no external presence. Sunk in a cutting, it is, in Brunel's words, 'all interior'. From Praed Street, Brunel's three great arched sheds are concealed behind P C Hardwick's pompous and fussy Great Western Hotel. A narrow side street provides an awkward glimpse into the fourth shed, added in 1913-16, using steel rather than iron, but in other respects an approximate copy of Brunel's approach.

ngp's appointment at Paddington, where the first phase of the comprehensive reconstruction project has just been completed, was the outcome of the Station 2000 study, commissioned from ngp by Railtrack (shortly after privatisation) to establish a development strategy for its 14 major stations in London and leading provincial cities. The practice was subsequently asked to work up a masterplan for Paddington, with a full presentation to Westminster Council in September 1996.

Since the completion of Shed 4, there have been many changes at Paddington. The Lawn area (where there was once a garden behind the hotel) was rebuilt in 1930-1934 to provide a more spacious passenger concourse under a flat, utilitarian steel-and-glass roof, with access to the Underground and the hotel, itself extended and refurbished. (As first built, Paddington consisted of separate arrival and departure areas on the north and south sides of the station, with the central shed used for carriage sidings.) The ends of the tracks were progressively pushed back to further improve circulation, though the construction of a massive bank of indicator boards obscured the view of the train sheds. The proliferation of catering and information kiosks further blighted the concourse. A rehabilitation campaign during the 1980s restored the roof (already discoloured again by the emissions of ageing InterCity 125 diesels) and provided an improved booking hall along the south side of the station.

During the last days of British Rail, the arrival of the Heathrow Express was planned. It was instigated under Railtrack's authority with baa (British Airways Authority) funding and produced some neat insertions by Troughton McAslan, but the case for an integrated programme of change has been further reinforced by the prospect of firm development proposals for the Paddington Basin area - not to mention the less immediate prospect of CrossRail.

The second and third phases of ngp's project, scheduled for completion in 2005, will address Shed 4 (currently awaiting redevelopment) and the south side of the station, which was much damaged in the Second World War, respectively. ngp director Andrew Whalley modestly describes phase I - begun on site in September 1997, and including the new Lawn Building and refurbishment of the platform areas - as 'a housekeeping exercise'; yet it has transformed the appearance of the station and greatly improved conditions for travellers.

The Heathrow Express, says Whalley, was a major catalyst. British Airports Authority pressed for a major check-in facility at the station, accompanied by much-improved passenger facilities. The Lawn area was the obvious location. It was an inferior addition, of no special interest, a rather pointless space, partly filled by a single-storey shed housing a branch of John Menzies with banks of public telephones behind.

Instilling into hectic Paddington what the architects describe as 'a Grimshaw version of calm' brought ngp up against a key issue: should stations become more like airports? At Waterloo International, the train shed was universally admired, but the check-in and waiting areas in the undercroft were - inevitably - lacking in drama, totally divorced from the platform areas. At Paddington, the aim was to create an airport-style environment, insulated from the diesels, but visually connected to the sheds.

With the intrusive indicator boards removed (and replaced by ngp's plasma- screen panels positioned either side of the concourse) and the various kiosks rationalised as a series of low pavilions, the views into the sheds have been restored. ngp sought to capitalise on them by making the Lawn Building a transparent, all-glazed box contained on three sides by the hotel, itself now under refurbishment, and by two 1930s office buildings, one of which (Tournament House) is a striking example of the commercial Art Deco of the period.

Brunel, by his own admission, had 'neither time for nor knowledge' of decoration, but he bowed to the taste of the 1850s by allowing architect Matthew Digby Wyatt to design the ornamental details for Paddington. These included the elaborate metal tracery (sometimes described as proto-Art Nouveau and influenced by the work of the designer Owen Jones) applied to the glazed ends of the sheds. Restoring lost portions of the tracery, with the encouragement of English Heritage, was an intriguing challenge for ngp which is not known for decorative work, yet it was the right decision. Seen from the 'Bristol end' of the station, the reglazed ends are dramatically set against the face of the new glass box behind. Behind the shed ends, a very straightforward new glazed elevation has been inserted to contain the fully air-conditioned space beyond.

Straightforwardness is the key to the entire scheme, a commendable intent to defer to and complement the majesty of Brunel's work. The plan of the new space is simple: an off-centre void is flanked by strips of accommodation. That to the north is mostly contained within the elegantly refurbished Tournament House. To the south, a new multi-level structure contains retail and eating/drinking facilities. (Passengers delayed by the vagaries of Great Western Trains will be able to pass their time in a branch of Sainsbury's.) One regrets this intervention into the space, but the views down from the upper floors provide some compensation, and the tenants installed so far have shown (or had imposed on them) a commendable restraint in their signage.

The Lawn area remains properly subsidiary to the main sheds of the station. The roof is conceived as an up-to-date, cast stainless steel and high- performance glass, version of the ridge-and-furrow system which Brunel, inspired by the Crystal Palace, had used in the 1850s. ngp has a huge reputation for close attention to detail and Grimshaw-watchers will enjoy the quality of the custom-made castings. Concrete is of excellent quality, with a pleasing degree of sparkle in the mix. Yet the structure (developed in conjunction with David Dexter at W S Atkins, formerly Tony Hunt's project engineer at Waterloo) is subordinate to the idea of creating 'a big, comfortable room'. This is a space for all station-users, though an increasing number of them are making use of the bank of airline check-in desks - like the rather intrusive central coffee bar, these were not designed by ngp. It is already busy and will become more so as the shops open.

The impact of the new building is intensified by the contrast between its cool and light interior and the subdued light of the train sheds. (Until someone finds the cash to electrify all the trains, there seems little point in cleaning the roof.) For decades, under British Rail and its successors, 'improvements' to our great Victorian stations have consisted either of transitory, sometimes intrusive, interventions or cosmetic, conservation-led redecoration schemes. At last, the issue of how these great monuments are to function for the future is being addressed at Paddington and the success of what has been achieved so far should provide the impetus for the next phases. And you can, at last, do what Brunel imagined 150 years ago: check in your luggage at Paddington and retrieve it in New York.

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