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The Crafting of King’s Cross Station by Hongmiao Shi

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

It’s a Friday night and I’m rushing to catch the next train at Kings Cross Station to see my parents for the weekend.  Less than eight minutes until departure. It’ll be fine, I think.

Walking through the dark plaza in front of the station, I step into the Western Concourse to check the departures and buy my ticket. Opened in 2012, the new concourse by John McAslan + Partners and Arup is a light, semi-circular space composed on one side by the original brick buildings of Lewis Cubitt and on the other a sweeping white balcony supporting cafes and shops. A huge, white, latticed roof of painted steel and glass envelope the building, appearing at once both structural and organic; this canopy is apparently the largest single-span structure in Europe. A sense of airiness, modernity and security washes over me like a great wave.

I wonder fleetingly if anyone else in the crowd of commuters, all staring in rapt attention at the departure board, feels the same sense of security. Though they stand with bated breath for their platform to appear, there are no feelings of mounting tension within the building. Perhaps this is because the concourse is so cavernous: with the ceiling reaching up to 20m high and a floor span to accommodate 100,000 travellers at peak times, Kings Cross is undoubtedly one of London’s most spacious stations. Perhaps it is the whiteness of its modular, diagrid canopy roof, whose colour appears so pure, clinical and calming. Perhaps it is the shape of this semi-circular roof, with a gentle curve that draws the eyes – and the crushing pressure of waiting – away through the glass top and out into the night sky.

I make my way through the crowd to the main ticket office, one of Cubitt’s original buildings that opened with the station in 1852 and preserved as a part of the modern redevelopment. The walls are still faced in the original brickwork and the windows lined with pseudo-classical columns. The obvious Victorian aesthetic draws my mind to abstract concepts of tradition, history and enduring legacy.

Framing the front entrance of the ticket office is McAslan’s enormous treelike column, the trunk of the expansive latticed roof. The smooth whiteness of the painted steel is a stark contrast to the rough brickwork. Yet, this contrast is hugely uplifting: modern engineering is seen to be supporting a historical architectural triumph. Just as Cubitt’s original Kings Cross had represented the height of Victorian technology and transport, McAslan’s extension mirrors these ideas using state-of-the-art technology. Similarly, as Cubitt’s station has endured for over a century, transporting people and goods up and down the country, the new Western Concourse brings the station into the 21st century. The fusion of Victorian brick with modern steel and glass inspires a sense of reliability through the ages.

Four minutes to go.

I step back into the central space, ticket in hand. Is there time to get a coffee? Cafes and shops beckon from the other side of the concourse: familiar brands enclosed in clean glass and modern units. No, not enough time today, but the trustworthiness of these recognised brands reflect the enduringness of the constant Kings Cross Station.

People watch me from the curved mezzanine walkway above, as I have also done many times before whilst waiting for my platform. This sweeping balcony - coated with over five million tiny, white ceramic tiles - echoes the same contrast with the flat, Victorian bricks it faces. A visual conversation between the past and present.

Three minutes.

Striding now across the concourse to Platform 8. The lights are changing colour overhead, illuminating the canopy from yellow to green. I feel safe in the low lighting and the historic brickwork enclosed by polished steel archways: the space feels comfortably controlled. It is inspiring to think that, when the materials are so visually well-balanced, all other parts of the station must be a success as well; parts that cannot be seen by the eyes. Perhaps a circulation through the building will efficiently lead me to my platform, or the envelope will keep me safe from the cold and rain outside. Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, was once quoted saying “Architecture begins where engineering ends”. Likewise, Kings Cross Station goes beyond simply housing trains and passengers in a practical way: the skilful arrangement of old and new materials makes me ponder if the building is conspiring to see me off on time, as it has done since 1852.

I step onto my train. Two minutes until departure. It’s fine, I smile.

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