Underneath the arches

[I wrote this article in spring and have fruitlessly pitched it at all sorts of publications since then. I think the story – one of modernist optimism and arrogance – is fascinating, but I guess that\’s the problem with writing things that you find interesting: will anyone else? Anyway, station architecture seems to be in vogue this week, so here\’s some ambivalent advocacy for one of London\’s least loved landmarks.]

Arriving at Euston Station during the rush hour is a curiously calming experience to anyone used to the chaos of British transport planning. As commuters stream across the concourse or gaze abjectly at the departure boards, the layout of the airy concourse is immediately comprehensible; you can see, in an instant, where everything is.

The triple-height space is bright and naturally lit, with a recessed concrete roof seeming to float above clerestory windows that let daylight flood in. The Station’s design, by British Railways architect RL Moorcroft, was deliberately minimal and monochrome: passengers and advertising hoardings would provide colour; seats were rejected as unnecessary distractions from the business of movement (and as magnets for “layabouts”). While retail kiosks now litter the concourse’s elegant green-grey marble floors, this clarity shines through the clutter.

But there is a strange absence too. The station seems almost embarrassed by grubby presence of trains themselves. Long ramps hurry you through ticket gates, to a low-ceilinged train-shed, whose industrial design and lighting, softened only by a few tentative pot plants, contrasts with the calmness of the concourse. This is not a place for the lingering goodbyes of departing lovers, or for the grimy romance of steam, but a machine for the efficient and hygienic processing of people and goods in an electric age.

This segregation of concourse from trains suggests that the model for Euston was the modernism of airport design, not anything as clunkily old-fashioned as a railway station. In the 1960s, of course, airports were still glamorous places, holding out promises of the exotic, rather than airless boxes stuffed with opportunities for queuing, and humiliation in the name of security. When the station was completed in 1968, Architects Journal made this comparison explicit, criticising the paucity of catering outlets at Euston compared to West London (now Heathrow) Airport, and – more outlandishly – asking why the station still relied on porters, rather than using conveyor belt technology to transfer luggage.

The Station was also criticised for its external spaces, and age has not improved these. There is no sign of thinking outside this glass and steel box, and any fleeting flavour of sixties glamour quickly evaporates. In front of the station, a statue of George Stephenson watches over one of London’s most desolate public spaces. Even on the calmest of days, smokers, street drinkers and commuters are buffeted by gusting winds and mini-cyclones of debris. The black glass and marble office buildings and gallery that create this foul microclimate also contrive, together with desolate planters and kiosks, to hide the station’s façade from the bus station and Euston Road. There may not be many fans of the Euston’s architecture, but making stations invisible does not improve their accessibility to the travelling public.

Things were very different 100 years ago. Euston’s Doric Arch (or propylaeum to be thoroughly correct) stood at the gateway to the Victorian station. It was designed, together with the original buildings, by Philip Hardwick for the London and Birmingham Railway Company and completed in 1838. The station buildings, and in particular the Great Hall designed by Hardwick’s son and completed in 1849, were themselves fine pieces of classical architecture: the current concourse pays sly tribute to the Great Hall’s recessed ceilings and clerestory windows. But it was the 22-metre high Arch that became iconic. It was described by JM Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, as “one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early 19th Century, and the most important – and visually most satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered”.

The Victorian station was set further back from Euston Road than its sixties replacement. Bringing the station south, to make room for longer platforms and larger trains, was a crucial element of the re-development plans. Today, architects might have been asked to work round the Arch, to treat it as a non-negotiable ‘given’ in their designs. British Rail does not appear to have given much consideration to this possibility: the Arch would have to go. First of all, it was to be re-located intact, then demolished and rebuilt, and then simply demolished, unless someone could come up with £190,000 (nearly £3 million today) to enable its relocation and reconstruction.

Between 1959 and 1961, appeals from a growing and sometimes improbable coalition – including the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the Victorian and Georgian Societies, Nikolaus Pevsner, Woodrow Wyatt, Tom Driberg, Sir John Betjeman, and Alison and Peter Smithson – fell on deaf ears, as the buck passed from the British Transport Commission (British Rail’s ‘parent company’) to London County Council, and back again. Eventually, in November 1961, Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, received a deputation of protest, but loftily dismissed their arguments. “Concern for such relics,” he said, “will sap national vitality.” Nothing could be done, nothing was, and the Arch was demolished in 1962.

All that remains of the 19th Century Euston today is a pair of gatehouses, inconspicuous alongside the thundering traffic of Euston Road, the destinations engraved on their stone a mute memorial to the height of the steam age. The Doric Arch itself is cheekily commemorated on decorative tiling in Euston Underground Station, and in local street and pub names. In a curious footnote, fragments were found in an East London river in the mid-1990s, and a campaign to rebuild it was launched. But it is hard to see the sense in its resurrection, divorced of context, after a 45-year absence.

But, in some ways, Euston Arch’s destruction has had a more powerful legacy than its retention could ever have achieved. It galvanised and united the heritage movement, drawing it away from the perceived elitism of preserving set-piece churches and palaces, to a more democratic concern with the places – stations, factories and shops – that were part of modern every day life. The apathy, arrogance and evasiveness of the state also prompted new legislation: the 1967 Civic Amenities Act established conservation areas as a more subtle tool than the listing of individual buildings, and the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act made the demolition of listed buildings illegal.

Nobody shed a tear just before Easter, when Network Rail announced the return of the bulldozers to Euston. Nobody is going to start a campaign to preserve the Station as a treasure for the nation. Its charms are too elusive, and its faults too obvious. Aside from which, the strength of London’s commercial property market and the potential of the empty space above the station makes a compelling case for redevelopment. But, long after British Land’s promised “major mixed use development” has been completed, Euston may still be remembered for what it once represented – the dawn of a new electric age of convenience and efficiency – as well as for the cavalier disdain for the past that accompanied that dawn. This was the future once, and this was where that future stopped.