I’ve always loved those 19th century train stations – and dismissed modernist scoffers who think that there’s a disjunction between the function of the shed and the decoration of the station and hotel – this shot from Flickr shows the kind of thing that sets some critics off.
There’s a very positive review of the renovations at St. Pancras at Times Online
Once you get past the humdrum of getting from A to B, travel is about the exotic, about possibility. Architecture is the same. Once you get past building a structure that stays up, it is architecture’s purpose to take you higher. Gilbert Scott and Barlow didn’t just build a mechanism for fast travel – revolutionary enough though that was in the 1860s – they built one whose very shape fast-tracked the imagination. The commuter, the ordinary Joe, had never been treated to such finery. King’s Cross next door, London Bridge across the Thames, old Euston or the new underground railway were pure Victorian utilitarian.
St Pancras, though, was romantic – Neo-Gothic, but from a time when Neo-Gothic wasn’t just nostalgic. Combined with high technology of iron and glass, it was weirdly (to our modern eyes) futuristic too, despite the fact that most Victorian architects at the time were still dithering over whether iron was respectable enough to be out in polite society, let alone combined with godly Gothic.
The combination created architecture of fervency, height, breadth and adrenalin. Think of John O’Connor’s 1884 painting From Pentonville Road Looking West: Evening, the fiery, polluted, Victorian sky pricked by St Pancras’s towering pinnacles. Has smog over a grimy neighbourhood ever looked more visionary?
No bones about it, Barlow and Gilbert Scott made St Pancras to be the greatest station in the land. No, not a station – a cathedral, its Gothic pointed shed, the widest single-span arch of its age, apeing lofty medieval Gothic naves, and piled high with allusive decoration to stoke the imagination, and gird the loins for the adrenalin rush of newly fast travel and the future.
Stripped of soot, all this is back with a mighty bang. It’s like digitally remastering a crackly 78, or retouching scratchy Victorians in colour. St Pancras is bright. The shed’s immense glass roof is dazzlingly clear, shedding light on to the platforms below. Its metal girders are painted what was found to be the original baby blue – demanded, no less, by its first stationmaster, who requested an artificial sky to replace nature’s original. The brick and stone of Gilbert Scott’s architectural casing is, again, almost orange bright.
The carvings are crisp: you will never see more wrestling dragons on a building. The details, right down to the mammoth Addams Family brackets and drainpipes out of a medieval torture chamber, are lavish. Whole new walls, arches and arcades, never intended by Barlow and Gilbert Scott, have been built but so dedicated has been the mimicry that you’d be hard-pressed to spot them. The building sings. And what a sweet note.
Go read the rest! St. Pancras was one of the great triumphs of early historic preservationism, and a legacy of Sir John Betjeman’s Victorian Society.