Thursday 17 September 2009

Overarching ambition


Euston station is doomed. Not the Victorian station - London's first major station, which opened at the very start of Victoria's reign (1837) - which was demolished years ago. But, rather, the 1960s disaster that replaced it. Plans are afoot for a complete redevelopment, in the early years of the next decade.

Contrary to what you might imagine, I quite like many modern buildings. But there is nothing (and I can't stress this enough) nothing positive to be said about the current Euston station. It's a functional shed, with no imagination or creative thought seemingly having been expended upon it. Let's hope we do better with Euston 3.0.

There is, however, a campaign to restore part of the original station in the process, namely the Euston Arch. The historian and tv presenter Dan Cruickshank leads the campaign and your can visit the relevant blog here. It features an image of what a rebuilt arch might look like (see above) and details of the remarkable recovery of original stones from demolished building, found in a canal in east London.

Is it worth it?

The precedent, cited by the campaigners, is naturally St. Pancras, only half a mile down the road from Euston. But there were two good reasons for renovating the old St. Pancras Station.

1. the moving of the Eurostar terminal to St. Pancras guaranteed it would be a prestigious project
2. it is a unique and astonishing building

Euston Arch, on the other hand? I don't get it.

Money, of course, is an issue (it could easily be £10 million, apparently) but I can't claim to understand the complexities of funding such projects - government money, developer's money, lottery funds - and I suspect cash could be found. Let's put that aside - what's the jusitification?

Yes, the arch was imposing; a London landmark. Moreover, it was a popular outcry against its destruction that is believed to have saved nearby St. Pancras from a similar fate. I'm sure many Londoners have fond memories of it. But the new arch won't be in the same place; it won't fulfil the same function (opening onto Euston Square, rather that onto the station buildings) and - I think this is the decider for me - it will bear no relation, visually or in function, to the new station.

With the Victorian Gothic of St. Pancras, the architectural elements combined with the function of the building created something exciting - something that had never existed before - something that's worth preserving. But Euston arch? Without the original station - of which it was an integral part - it seems odd to recreate it as a piece of isolated window-dressing. I also just cannot understand the need to use the original stones - dredged at vast expense from their subaqueous (is that a word?) resting place - when the associated costs of restoration etc. (admitted by the campaigners) will triple the budget for the project; and when the complete set of stones have not been found (so a good deal of new material will be incorporated, regardless).

Perhaps I am being too mean-spirited. Temple Bar has been placed at St. Pauls, somewhat distant from its original site, and I enjoy seeing it there. That, however, was kept broadly intact, and not smashed to pieces in a canal. Moreover, being a much smaller structure, I imagine it cost a fraction of what it would cost to reconstruct Euston Arch; and it has a much longer and more interesting history attached to it.

Macmillan (the prime minister who approved the original demolition) commented 'an obsession with such buildings will drain our national vitality'. I can't quite agree with that - a fascination with history can be intensely rewarding and instructive - but I sympathise a little. I never saw the arch in the flesh; and I suspect nostalgia plays a great part here. It sounds harsh, but I'm inclined to say let's focus on building a new exciting London - preserve out heritage, by all means - but not try to resurrect ghosts from the past.

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