In 2020 St Pancras International, a railway station in London, turns 13. It has become London’s leading ‘destination’ station: high-end shops, bars, restaurants and a luxury hotel sit alongside a complex transport interchange between metropolitan, regional and international rail services. Now in its second decade, we look back on our work there to see what lessons it can teach us around heritage and the built environment.
The station was originally built in 1868 to the designs of the Midland Railway’s engineer William Barlow, whose mighty iron roof, arching unobstructed across the train shed, was once the largest free-spanning structure in the world. The dramatic gothic hotel at the front was designed by George Gilbert Scott, one of Victorian England’s most prolific and distinguished architects.
By the middle of the twentieth century the building was unloved and decaying badly. It was nearly destroyed as London, like much of Britain, looked to replace its “vulgar” and “outdated” Victorian buildings. Sleek modernist structures were thought to be more fitting for an optimistic post-war future. Euston station suffered this fate in 1962.
Euston’s destruction, and the survival of St Pancras, brought about the conservation movement as we know it today in Britain. The rebirth of St Pancras in 2007 gave it the opportunity to become influential again in a new way: as an exemplar of heritage as a driver for urban regeneration.
The conservation and rebirth of the Victorian station
As a heritage consultant and architectural conservationist, I am particularly interested in the quality of the building’s conservation. Arup approached the task with a clear brief to preserve as much as possible of the Victorian station’s unique character. Wide-ranging stakeholder consultation was carried out to establish the priorities of various heritage groups prior to and during the project.
The key design move was to devote Barlow’s huge shed to trains and hide the new elements – shops, ticket halls, pedestrian flow and all the transport interchange movements – in an undercroft below. A slot was then cut out of the platform level to open a sunken precinct to views of the magnificent roof above. A new shed was constructed to the rear, accommodating the much longer trains of the rerouted Eurostar service from Paris and Brussels.
These adaptations were not without their compromises – the transition between old and new train sheds could have been more sensitively handled, for instance – but the project achieved a startling success in allowing the original building to work in a new way. The most important aspects of its original design are framed and celebrated in a modern context. Changes to the building are, for the most part, expressed “honestly”, meaning that new materials are clearly distinct from the old. This is another key principle of good conservation practice. The composite building is satisfyingly multi-layered and architecturally stunning.
St Pancras legacy
After thirteen years St Pancras remains a prime example of a key principle of modern urban design: that transport interchanges should be centres for density, activity and economic growth. In this way the redevelopment of St Pancras opened the door for central London’s largest brownfield site to be brought back to life.
The economic stimulus of public transport can be profound. In this case St Pancras prompted the renewal of its neighbour station King’s Cross and a cascading sequence of investment in the previously inaccessible “railway lands” to the rear of both. These contaminated former goods yards, previously serving the Midland and East Coast main railway lines, have been transformed. Two major educational institutions have moved in: Central Saint Martin’s art school to a converted grain warehouse, and the Francis Crick Institute into a new building drawing significant architectural cues from Barlow’s station.
Offices, homes and shops have followed – including the remarkable Coal Drops Yard and Midland Goods Shed, both inhabiting former railway buildings, and Gasholders London set inside three conserved Victorian gasholder frames. Gilbert Scott’s station hotel has also been completely renovated. Arup has had a hand in all of these projects, along with various other new buildings on the site.
St Pancras stands as a gateway for rail passengers into London, and for Londoners into a rediscovered part of the city. It acts as monument and standard-bearer for an intelligent, sensitive approach to city development which celebrates the heritage of a place and uses it as a propellant for positive change.
In Arup’s current work at other stations (including York, listed at Grade II* and positioned next to a famous medieval city centre) we still reference our achievements at St Pancras: a new urban quarter and high-grade public space around a carefully-conserved historic station. Victorian engineering as catalyst for the complex dynamics of 21st-century life.