Friday, 4 January 2008

An opportunity missed

Oh dear. After the rapturous reception given to the new St Pancras development in the press, I thought it would be a great experience using it.  I was very disappointed.

First of all, it still isn't finished. To get to the terminal from King's Cross involved crossing a wide area of rough concrete, divided only by temporary barriers and traffic cones. The front entrance isn't open (at the moment) so you have to go all the way down to the modern part of the station, then walk all the way BACK to the front of the station to get to Eurostar.

And the 'downstairs' part of the station is crammed with retail. A triumph of consumerism. Plywood fascias where shops haven't been finished.

The e-ticket machines don't work. Having come with my booking reference and bank card, I then have to queue for fifteen minutes  in the Eurostar ticket office because the machine refuses to print the ticket. The ticket office of course is nowhere near the machines, and the signage is inadequate, so I waste about ten minutes looking for it.

The ticket office doesn't even have a queuing system installed. It's chaos; no one knows which ticket desks are free and the clerks have to shout to see if anyone is waiting.

I can't see the interior facade of the hotel block, a fine piece of Victorian Gothic, because a crappy 1960s purple and yellow banner covers practically the whole facade, slathered with the names of retailers. This is a shopping centre that also has some trains; a bit like the much derided V&A advert - "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".

The  modern extension on the back is typical modernist brutalism. Its girdered roof, rectilinear and low, runs with the beams at right angles to the Victorian train shed almost as if it's saying "Sod off, you arty-farty aesthetic crap". The outside looks interesting, but inside, it's typically mean and without aspiration - the low roof is depressing, there's none of the airy, ambitious feel of Barlow's great train shed.

I know Eurostar requires a certain amount of security but the way it has been done means it's difficult to get a feeling for the wonderful space of the train shed; it's divided up by high glass walls.  Light wells through to the shopping mall below further subdivide the area, so you feel as if you're on a narrow ledge around the train shed - the expansiveness of the original idea has gone.

It's this expansiveness that I think  was the defining characteristic of so much good Victorian architecture.  Ordinary people deserve light, space, ambition. Railways were about ambition, too - about the ambition to travel, to find new places, new experiences, new employment. That's why these stations are such exciting places.

By comparison, the new blockish shed makes travel a functional and unpleasant experience. We are only common people. We don't deserve light, space, or consideration; we're just cattle, human cargo to be efficiently processed.

I'm glad St Pancras has been preserved. But how much better it would have been if only the modern architects had been able to share Barlow's great railway dream.

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