Friday 8 February 2008

St Pancras Revisited

It’s not easy to get past all the hype that’s been flying around this place and vast spaces like this one can numb the critical faculties. At first glance, the impact of the massive roof canopy painted sky blue is astonishing. It’s never looked so enormous or so pristine, at least, in living memory. The restoration of the original fabric is a major triumph and the lighting shows Scott’s architectural details in all their glory. It’s the new infrastructure that I find so disappointing. The subterranean shopping mall has nothing to distinguish it from its numerous suburban counterparts. The retail outlets are clones and have no individual character or distinction. Where commercial considerations come first, we really can’t expect much better but we could have expected a much more imaginative and spectacular train station to match the magnificence and ambition of the original structure.

When the rebuilding of Euston Station was completed in the 1960’s the designers were presumably very satisfied with the way in which they had eliminated almost any trace of the actual trains from the concourse. The very things that were the reason for the building’s existence were relegated to a dimly lit concrete basement. There is a bizarre affectation in the British character that deals with engineering technology by concealing it wherever possible lest it should give offence. The designers of British steam locomotives hid the working parts deep in the interior of the bodywork. This made them much more difficult and expensive to repair and service than their more practical European and North American counterparts that carried their engineering on the outer surfaces of the machine. Much of this thinking has persisted into the 21st. century and might explain why the actual trains themselves are so difficult to see at St. Pancras. This technology should be celebrated in the structure and displayed for all to see and not treated as if it were some rather ugly but essential business to be concluded behind closed doors. It is true that the experience of Eurostar travel has virtually none of the sense of adventure, romance or glamour that traditionally attached to international train travel but that is no reason for so ruthlessly excluding all these qualities from the design.

In the end, what we get reflects a sad lack of imagination and an inability to rise to the challenge set by Barlow and Scott in 1868. There are some expensive materials, a champagne bar that stretches almost to Cricklewood and reflective surfaces are everywhere but all this is small consolation for the pedestrian flavour of the design. And then there is the matter of the Meeting Place sculpture.

As a piece of public art, this is very mediocre. Whenever a group of people set out to create something (in their words) “iconic”, the outcome is likely to be dismal. When the group in question is composed of marketing experts, image consultants and PR professionals, the prospect is even more depressing. The choice of sculpture was entirely dictated by the requirement that it be “iconic”. Conceptually shallow, it presents an image both unconvincing and slightly disturbing.
The male figure has a predatory air and the worrying likeness of a Nazi officer straight from central casting. In reality, he’s probably a consultant who trades in PFI schemes while his female partner is perhaps an Event Organizer or a Fashion Buyer for a chain store. Together they resemble outsize participants in a TV perfume ad who have suddenly found themselves immobilized and immortalised in bronze. To my mind, they would be improved by the addition of some bright colour, in the manner of Jeff Koons. Then it would at least be cheerful kitsch instead of pretentious kitsch.

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