Discover the history of architecture through the RIBA’s collection of 2,000 periodical titles. This month the British Architectural Library takes a potted look at the architecture of railway stations 150 and 100 years ago this month:
March 1862: Railway hotels
150 years ago it was reported that the building of the London Bridge Railways Terminus Hotel was nearing completion. Its architect Henry Currey wrote a piece in The Builder (8 March 1862) describing its progress. Back then, London – just as it is now for the summer Olympics – was preparing for a major event by building new facilities. In May of that year, the 1862 International Exhibition was to open and with it the firm expectation that more travellers would be coming into the city. According to Currey, by building this 200-room hotel “London, which has hitherto been badly supplied with hotel accommodation, is at last making a move in the right direction.” He describes some of the facilities, including coffee rooms, a linen department, library, reading room and space for “a Southwark club (which is much wanted by the professional and commercial classes of the Borough)”. It started a trend in luxury hotels at railway stations and a decade later Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel was opened at St Pancras station.
Sadly, these grand hotels fell out of favour or turned out to be uneconomical to run. Both hotels at London Bridge and St Pancras became offices for the railway companies that they once served. While the former Midland Hotel was saved and recently renovated to become a hotel again, Currey’s six-storey building was lost during enemy action in World War II. This year its former site at the corner of St. Thomas and Joiner Street will see the completion of the Shard. Currey’s will live on. When the Shard opens, the site will once again see a luxury hotel and this time it will take up several floors of Europe’s tallest building.
March 1912: The new American stations
Across Europe, journals in 1912 began showing growing admiration for the emerging architecture of the United States, including their railway stations. New York had just seen new stations built whose size and good design overshadowed those built on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Architects’ & Builders’ Journal (20 March 1912) looked at the classical splendour of Pennsylvania Station in an article titled American Architecture from the British Point of View. It must have fed into the Edwardian unease at the shift in economic power away from Britain and the growing confidence of American architects: “If one may venture into the realm of prophecy, it must be to express the belief that there is a bright prospect for architecture in America”. Completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was used by the journal as an example of the features identified in American architecture: “vigour, competence, singleness of purpose.” Every part was designed and its layout planned by McKim, Mead and White Architects, creating a dignified and well-ordered station; when making a comparison of this and other American stations with the newer termini in the British capital, the writer declared: “we weep for London”!
By 1912 the Beaux-Arts style Grand Central Terminal building was a year from completion. Deutsche Bauzeitung (30 March 1912) described it in detail, replete with drawing of its cavernous interior and the visual impact at street level.
March 2012: The new King’s Cross
Since 1912, the railways and their grandest urban manifestations, the railway stations, have undergone a much lamented decline, but reversed in more recent years by new investment and renovation projects. This month many architectural journals and national newspapers reported on the opening of the new concourse at King’s Cross station in London. Designed by architects John McAslan + Partners with engineer ARUP, the concourse is part of a £500 million redevelopment of the station. Through the RIBA’s Periodicals Collection we have seen architects – working in tandem with engineers and other designers – playing a vital role in major world events, by designing not just the venues, but the means to accommodate and transport the great numbers of visitors.
The RIBA will be celebrating King’s Cross station in a new exhibition. King’s Cross: Regenerating a London landmark will open on 19 May 2012 at the V&A + RIBA Architecture Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum. Entry will be free.