[This post inaugurates a new series at normblog in which David Garrard will be writing occasionally about places, spaces, buildings and urban landscapes. - NG.]
Is this London's least loved building? To the traveller, Euston Station seems almost designed for that dubious accolade. Provincials from the Midlands and the North-West are debouched into a dismal concrete sepulchre, slab-ceilinged and oppressive, which despite being at surface level contrives to feel about a mile underground. Londoners either arrive by bus, across the forecourt's shanty-town of encrusted picnic-tables and relentlessly tawdry public art, or else ascend from the Underground into a drearily cavernous ticket hall, its chaos of ad-hoc signage, commercial kiosks and huddled humanity reminiscent of a funfair in an aircraft hangar.
How did we end up with this mess? Euston belongs, along with Coventry Cathedral and the Globe Theatre, to that peculiar class of buildings loved or hated at least as much for what they used to be as for what they are now. Veteran travellers on what was once the London and North Western Railway remember a very different station, which lingers among their descendants as a folk-memory: the vast Doric propylaeum (the so-called 'Euston Arch') bestriding Drummond Street like the gateway to some industrial-era Acropolis, and behind it the scrolly Italianate pomp of the Great Hall and the airy delicacy of the iron and glass train shed. The original station complex of 1837-49, designed by the father-and-son architects Philip and Philip Charles Hardwick, was one of the late masterpieces of English neoclassicism, and the first great architectural glory of the railway age. Its destruction in 1961 prompted a tremendous reassessment of the 19th-century's artistic heritage, for which we can thank the continued existence of the neighbouring (and even more spectacular) St Pancras. The replacement station is still somehow imagined - in what has feelingly been called 'the Euston Murder' - as having blood on its hands.
But modern Euston is what it is; and it's hardly fair to expect it to possess the special qualities of early Victorian architecture, still less to regard the station itself as guilty of some sort of oedipal crime. Prejudice against the architecture of the post-war era, combined with what we might call the aesthetics of resentment, conspire to blind us to the distinctive characteristics - even virtues - of the present-day complex.
For the Euston we see today is a complex - not the single monolithic unity we tend to imagine, but a sequence of buildings added to and altered over time, displaying the varied, often conflicting stylistic codes of several periods. Coming from the Euston Road, we first encounter some little-regarded relics of the old station: two neat classical cubes of Portland stone clinging to the unloved scrap of municipal greenery known as Euston Square Gardens. These accomplished little buildings of 1870 are the work of one J.B. Stansby, engineer to the LNWR (try getting a 21st-century transport engineer to run up a couple of Albertiesque pavilions on his afternoon off), and once marked the entrance to a grand processional route stretching from the main road a hundred yards north-west to the Arch itself. Between them is a stone obelisk with a group of sad soldiers in bronze at its foot: the railway company's monument to its Great War dead.
Behind this touching group of forlorn survivors are the best of the modern buildings: a speculative office development of 1978 by Richard Seifert and Partners, the most prolific and rapacious of London's post-war commercial practices, remembered for such sensitive additions to the city's skyline as the Natwest Tower and Centre Point. They have the trademark Seifert swagger. Across the front of the site stretches a long, sleek office slab clad in polished black granite and smoked glass, its structural grid expressed externally as an array of crisply-projecting shelves and fins. Around it stand three squat towers, curtain-walled the same dark materials as the slab; but here the granite and glass coalesce to form a perfectly smooth all-over sheath, a glistening storm-grey mirror for the surrounding sky. Here is that sinister glamour one sees in the best commercial architecture of the 1970s, when modernism abandoned its pretensions to brutal truthfulness and learned to live on the slick surface of things. This glossy insubstantiality is played up in the fenestration: the pattern of close-set windows wraps seamlessly around all four corners, so that the angles themselves are transparent rather than solid, and the bulky towers seem at the point of evaporating into the grey London air.
Beyond these, across the cratered moonscape of the forecourt (complete with rocket-like ventilator shafts), lies the station proper, the new concourse and platforms that replaced the Hardwick complex between 1962 and 1968. The architect was R.L. Moorcroft of British Railways' Midland Region; his work, although it doesn't compare well with that of his distant predecessor Stansby, still repays inspection. Even the rather dull forecourt facade - a series of long horizontal planes clad in white mosaic tile, tied together by slim black vertical shafts - is well composed and in its unfussy way even elegant; and the main interior, if we mentally subtract the unplanned accretions of the last 40 years, is a lofty, clean-lined, generously-proportioned space, a measured rejection of the smoke-and-upholstery world of Victorian rail travel. The one hint of extravagance is underfoot, in the lavish floor of deep green marble. Overhead, the massive ribbed concrete vault gestures towards the sublime (and also towards the famous deep-coffered ceiling over the 1849 Great Hall), whilst a strange honeycomb canopy gives the ticket office a surreal touch of the Alhambra.
Euston is no masterpiece. But neither is it the blank inhuman architecture-without-qualities that stereotyped perception represents. If the current £1 billion deal between Network Rail and the mega-developer British Land goes ahead, the whole of the 20th-century complex will shortly go the way of its predecessor, to be replaced with a huge new terminus-cum-hotel-cum-retail arcade in the swooshy shopping-mall style currently in vogue – possibly even incorporating a modern replica of the demolished Arch. This time, half a century on, few will mourn; but it pays to get the measure of what you have before you throw it away. Heritage sentiment is catching up with modern architecture: Centre Point is now grade II listed, as are the Barbican, the Trellick Tower and numerous other icon/carbuncles of the era. And if the 'sustainability agenda' ever becomes more than a rhetorical fig-leaf, we'll have to look again at our age-old practice of tearing buildings down as soon as we can make more money from new ones. How will the future look at the things we now unthinkingly destroy? (David Garrard)