Friday04 September 2015

King's Cross western concourse by John McAslan and Partners

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Fifteen years in planning, John McAslan’s ambitious concourse underpins a major transformation of the hitherto neglected London station

When King’s Cross station’s southern concourse falls to the wrecking ball later this year, it is hard to imagine even the most determined defender of postwar modernism losing sleep over its fate.

Built 40 years ago as a supposedly temporary extension to Lewis Cubitt’s handsome, if baldly functional brick train shed of 1852, this windowless, clapboard lean-to may well be the grottiest entrance of any public building in London. In the years since its construction, its meanness has only been exacerbated by King’s Cross’s success — today, it has to contend with 58 million passenger journeys per year.

The prospect of its demolition was first addressed as far back as 1987 when Foster and Partners drew up a scheme for a new triangular terminal to be wedged between King’s Cross and St Pancras. That beautiful if pretty nutty proposal — the trains were to have arrived below ground requiring enormously costly rerouting of the canals to the north — collapsed in the last recession along with the London Regeneration Consortium’s larger scheme for the development of the King’s Cross rail lands. It was only when John McAslan and Partners was appointed to look at undertaking a safety upgrade at King’s Cross in 1997 that the prospect of reconstruction began to be seriously addressed once again.

Tasked with investigating how a new concourse of significantly greater capacity might be accommodated, McAslan looked at such radically divergent possibilities as excavating a new level below the existing platforms, introducing a deck on top of them, and moving the platforms north — a strategy similar to that recently employed at St Pancras — thus enabling an expanded concourse to be established in the existing sheds. However all of these scenarios presented either technical difficulties, that could only be resolved at unimaginable expense, or required a level of change to the Cubitt building that would be impossible to reconcile with its grade I listed status.

King's Cross western concourse by John McAslan and partners

Source: John Sturrock

The new concourse takes its geometry from the curved plan of the Great Northern Hotel.

In the end, McAslan concluded that there was only one remotely convincing option: to extend Cubitt’s shed on the still largely vacant land to the west where Foster had proposed his terminus. However, funding for such an endeavour did not prove forthcoming. It was only when London won the 2012 Olympic Games that government recognised that this long overdue project could no longer be deferred. Finally, this week, a full 15 years after McAslan was appointed to the job, his new concourse opened to the public.

One particularly compelling attraction of the adopted strategy was the way the new concourse’s location corresponded to that of the original main entrance, opening up the possibility that features such as the old ticket office, which had become a staff badminton court and repository for plant, might be returned to their intended use.

Another, arguably less welcome, survivor was Cubitt’s Italianate Great Northern Hotel of 1854, a building that Foster had wanted to level, but that was subsequently listed grade II. Moderately lovely as it may be, the hotel’s continued existence has clearly been a major inconvenience, severely restricting the effectiveness with which McAslan’s work might address Euston Road, the street that forms King’s Cross’s primary address. The trouble isn’t just that it represents an obstruction. The building’s curving plan — inherited from a road layout that has long since been altered — has also proved highly deterministic. In fact, McAslan has allowed this urban anomaly to provide the generative geometry for his entire design. His new concourse is a half-circle in plan, its sliced-off edge pushed hard against the train shed, its circumference nestling neatly into the hotel’s embrace.

While one wrestles with the suspicion that there is something of the tail wagging the dog about this choice, the form does resolve many of the programme’s challenges remarkably neatly. For one thing, it deals with the need for the concourse to address not only Euston Road to the south but also the newly expanded St Pancras to the west and the King’s Cross Central development that is fast emerging on the former rail lines to the north. The sweeping arc also manages to forge a direct relationship to the suburban line platforms that run alongside Cubitt’s shed in their own (rather dowdy) building. Anyone who has raced for a train to Cambridge only to find themselves confronted with the labyrinthine route by which these platforms were accessed is really going to welcome the difference.

King's Cross western concourse by John McAslan and partners

Source: © Hufton and Crow

King’s Cross western concourse by John McAslan and partners

The primary route to the main platforms is the southern gateline that extends along the back of Cubitt’s main facade. Once the 1972 concourse is stripped out, one-way sliding glass doors will be introduced in this elevation, allowing disembarking passengers to exit directly into a new square being designed by Stanton Williams. One suspects the practice may have a challenge on their hands to make a success of this arrangement. Once fully revealed, Cubitt’s facade will present itself very emphatically as the front of King’s Cross but anyone hoping to enter here will find themselves presented with a no entry sign.

There is also a secondary route to the trains — a bridge that extends from the concourse’s retail-loaded mezzanine level and cuts across the platforms, midway down their length. This replaces the wrought iron but non-DDA compliant Handyside bridge of 1893 — now reconstructed on the Watercress Line, an attraction run by steam locomotive enthusiasts in Hampshire.

The lifts that link the new bridge to each platform level also descend to a subterranean level, allowing all onboard catering and cleaning traffic to be removed from the flow of passengers. This is just one of many subtle changes, including the reglazing of Cubitt’s roofs and the imposition of consistently detailed retail frontages, that may not demand attention but which collectively have a transformative effect on the passenger experience.

King's Cross western concourse by John McAslan and partners

Source: © Hufton and Crow

Cubitt’s roof has been reglazed and fitted with photovoltaic panels.

So the plan largely works. However, as is clear to see from the existing arrangements, the concourse of a railway station can be housed serviceably enough in a flat-ceilinged space, 4.5m high. It is to Network Rail’s considerable credit, therefore, that it has recognised the need to look beyond functional necessity and to reclaim for King’s Cross, the sense of civic ambition that has long been obscured. McAslan has been allowed to give his building the roof of which its plan was clearly dreaming — a half dome, rising to the height of Cubitt’s facade and traversing the concourse without intermediary support.

As a steel diagrid it is sure to be compared with the roof that Foster introduced over the Great Court of the British Museum, but there are significant differences. Where the expanse of ceramic fritted glazing employed at the British Museum generates a decidedly sub-aquatic atmosphere, the King’s Cross roof presents a more animated play of light and shadow through its incorporation of glazing only at the perimeter and apex. The McAslan roof is also the more layered of the two, the support rails for the composite aluminium-clad roofing panels being set above the primary structure. And perhaps the most significant difference of all is that where Foster’s roof bears on the surrounding fabric, McAslan’s is entirely self-supporting. Although motivated by heritage concerns, this stipulation has led the scheme into a much more demonstrative mode than it might otherwise have adopted.

kings cross section

kings cross section

Around the perimeter, the roof is carried on 16 cast-steel columns but such is its span that support has also been required at its apex. This has been addressed by drawing down the primary steels into an epic funnel form that meets the ground square in front of the ticket office. It is a nothing if not heroic gesture but has the unfortunate effect of giving the ticket office facade the appearance of having been fitted with a muzzle. There is also something distinctly uncomfortable about bringing the roof structure down to the floor without any intermediary articulation. McAslan’s architecture stands or falls on its tectonic rigour, so it is perplexing that this most crucial interface feels so misjudged.

This frustration aside, the scheme has to be judged a resounding success. Although the concourse will generate the most attention, it actually represents only one part of a nine-phase transformation — much of it involving the station’s back-of-house areas.

The complexity of that undertaking has been exacerbated significantly by the requirement that the station should remain in use throughout. All in, it’s costing £547 million so it is not hard to see why successive governments might have proven shy about taking the project on, but it really shouldn’t have required the Olympics to leverage the necessary funding.

Following the successful transformation of St Pancras, the scheme certainly suggests that Network Rail has come to appreciate that its extraordinary building stock demands a much greater level of care and investment than it has received in the recent past. It currently has major projects slated for Birmingham New Street, Paddington and Euston. In the redevelopment of King’s Cross, it has established for itself an ambitious benchmark of quality.

King’s Cross station

King’s Cross station was built in 1851-2 as the terminus of the former Great Northern Railway, the line to Lincoln-shire and Yorkshire. The rail line had been constructed by William Cubitt and his son Joseph, and through that connection, Joseph’s younger brother Lewis secured the commission to design the station.

The design comprises two parallel sheds — one originally used for arrivals and the other for departures.

Fosters’ 1987 King’s Cross scheme.

Fosters’ 1987 King’s Cross scheme.

Reviewing the building on its completion, The Builder noted that this was an architecture satisfied to depend for its effect “on the large-ness of some of the features, the fitness of the structure for its purpose and a characteristic expression of that purpose.”

In 1987 Foster & Partners developed a scheme for a new terminus to be built between St Pancras and King’s Cross which would handle incoming Eurostar trains. That project was ultimately abandoned in favour of an expansion of St Pancras, completed in 2007.

After the Olympic Games, the 1972 concourse at King’s Cross will be demolished, making way for a new square designed by Stanton Williams which will open next year.

Architect / masterplanner
John McAslan & Partners, Client Network Rail, Engineers Tata Steel Projects (roof and platform refurbish-ment/footbridge to station); Arup (western range and new concourse), Architect for King’s Cross Square Stanton Williams, Contractors
Laing O’Rourke/Costain JV (eastern range); Carillion (Platform 0); Vinci Construction (platform refurbishment and new concourse); Kier Rail (roof) Cost consultant Network Rail


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