Arts feature

Should Euston Arch be raised from the dead?

William Cook says a rebuilt Euston Arch would herald an architectural renaissance; Stephen Bayley thinks it would be civic cowardice and a betrayal of progressive Victorian values

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

Yes

 
William Cook
Rejoice! Rejoice! Fifty-four years after its destruction, Euston Arch has returned to Euston. Well, after a fashion. Four blocks from this lost portico, salvaged from a murky river bed in east London, have been deposited outside the station by Euston Arch Trust, a heroic pressure group that is campaigning to rebuild this much-lamented landmark. It’s only a tiny fragment of the original, but I can’t begin to tell you how much this small pile of rubble cheered me up. Wouldn’t it be terrific fun to reconstruct this splendid monument? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring old buildings such as Euston Arch back to life?

Even by the philistine standards of the Sixties, the demolition of Euston Arch was a particularly crass and shameful episode. Erected at the entrance to the world’s first metropolitan train terminus, this huge propylaeum was a fitting tribute to the golden age of rail. Its gratuitous removal was equally symbolic. When it was constructed, in 1837, Britain led the world in train travel. When it was torn down, in 1961, we’d long since fallen far behind. Rebuilding it would reconnect our railways with their illustrious history. It would show we’re no longer willing to endure the architectural aberrations of our recent past.

The alibi for this act of vandalism was the redevelopment of Euston station — resulting in the dismal structure we know and loathe today. Actually, the arch could easily have been relocated, but smashing it to pieces was much cheaper. John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner both begged Harold Macmillan not to sanction this iconoclasm. Woodrow Wyatt tabled a motion in the House of Commons. Their heartfelt pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite his olde-worlde public image, Supermac was infatuated with modernism. ‘An obsession with such buildings will drain our national vitality,’ he opined, perversely. Why are so many Conservative politicians so utterly unwilling to conserve?

The demolition contractor used some of the stones to build his new home in Bromley, called Paradise Villa — an address straight of Betjeman’s Metro-Land — but most of it was used to fill a hole in the Prescott Channel (a tributary of the River Lea). The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank dredged up a bit of it for his sterling TV series One Foot in the Past, and in 2009 British Waterways rescued another 29 gritstone blocks while building a new lock for the Olympic Park. Cruickshank reckons more than half the original masonry has survived. The remainder could easily be sourced from the same Yorkshire quarry. The entire enterprise would cost only £10 million, small change compared with HS2.

Trendy modern architects will sneer at this sentimental desire to turn back the clock, but it was trendy modern architects who tore down Euston Arch to make way for London’s most miserable train station. Nostalgia is a noble impulse (the Renaissance was a nostalgic movement) and anyway, there are plenty of progressive precedents for this sort of thing. The Germans are reconstructing many of the iconic buildings they lost during the second world war (the imperial palaces in Berlin and Potsdam are just two examples) and this is a nation for which the modernist mantras of the Bauhaus reign supreme. The results are uplifting and inspiring. When I first went to Dresden 20 years ago, its baroque Frauenkirche was a heap of rubble. When I returned there ten years later, it had been completely rebuilt. This reconstructed church has become the focal point for the regeneration of an entire city. By comparison, a compact project such as Euston Arch looks like a sideshow.

A rebuilt Euston Arch would herald a renaissance of traditional British architecture. There are countless other iconic buildings that could be raised from the dead. Everyone will have their own favourite, but I’d nominate the Chiswick Empire, an ornate variety theatre on Turnham Green, built by the doyen of music-hall architects Frank Matcham — obliterated, like so many others, to make way for a bleak tower block. Sure, such a movement would be reactionary, but then so is much of the world’s great architecture: Neo-Gothic, neoclassical, Romanesque….


As Cruickshank said, rebuilding Euston Arch would constitute ‘the righting of a great architectural wrong’. Inspired by the Acropolis, like all the best buildings it stands for something far greater than itself. As usual, the trainspotter’s poet laureate John Betjeman put it best:

The first trunk railway of the world we hail
London is linked to Birmingham by rail
Euston’s Great Portico was built to be
The gateway into Midland industry.

Donate a few quid to the Euston Arch Trust and who knows? Maybe it could be again.
 

No

 
Stephen Bayley
Let me immediately swing my wrecker’s ball into the flimsy structure of balanced debate. Of course, it was crass to demolish Euston Arch in the first place. Creative reuse, ironic recontextualising and urban layering would have been a far better idea. But to clamour for its reinstatement 50 years on is dispiriting, lazy and defeatist.

There is a lot of hoarse special pleading from the restoration lobby with its appeal to ‘traditional’ British architecture. But Philip Hardwick’s architectural style was not traditional at all. It was a passing fad. The Greek Revival came in only a few years before with the popularity of The Antiquities of Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, the Dan Cruickshanks of their day. And then it was gone. It was the same sort of slavish nod to continental fashion as Seifert’s 1970s blocks at Euston station were to the German Bauhaus.

William Cook talks of the ‘philistine standards of the Sixties’. Is this the same Sixties that produced the greatest ever up-tick in popular culture and turned London from a depressed, airless, post-colonial backwater into the outstanding cosmopolitan world city it is today? And any invocation of ‘iconic’ in any argument is a signal passed at danger, suggesting out-of-control thought processes. It’s not for me, you or him to declare anything ‘iconic’. Only history will decide.

Then there is the process of ‘rebuilding’: well, if it involves dredging a canal for architectural debris, rebuilding is, in terms of civic sense, as pitiable and futile as injecting monkey glands into grizzled carcasses in pursuit of eternal youth. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the restoration lobby. Is nostalgia a noble impulse? Not really. Nostalgia was originally identified as a psychosis, a mental aberration describing a state of mind that could find delight only in the past.

Between ‘nostalgic’ and ‘reactionary’ there is a space so fine that nothing is visible in it. Do we want more reactionary architecture? Personally, no. The locus classicus of reactionary architecture is the Prince of Wales’s Poundbury, as lifeless an architectural cadaver as you could hope not to find. Which image brings us to the notion of Euston Arch being ‘raised from the dead’.

Surely, notions of grave-robbing, exhumation, sorcery, ancestor-worship and zombie culture are unwholesome? In any case, even without necrological imagery, railway stations are emotional places with their sequence of cheerful arrivals and mournful departures. I’d prefer a new Euston to be optimistic and life-enhancing rather than the architectural equivalent of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Anyway, am I really alone in seeing a certain sort of beauty in this image of well-intentioned, well-dressed travellers wandering the sunny piazza in a euphoria of Macmillan-era futurism? This vision is as distant to us now as pretty Queen Anne was to Hardwick’s muscular Doric. One day, I am certain, archaeologists will want to rescue the Sixties Euston from Essex landfill. The rules of taste follow a sine wave: what is approved one moment is disavowed the next. As Mr Pickwick said, bewildered by the traffic in the new Trafalgar Square, ‘I am ruminating on the strange mutability of human affairs.’ Tastes change. It’s the only certainty about them.

Besides, the idea of rebuilding anything is so completely at odds with the original spirit of the London and Birmingham Railway. Did they think about reinstating the medieval cow byres that once sat in Euston’s fields? Did they want gay peasants in smocks dancing around a maypole? No, they did not. The idea of rebuilding Euston Arch is a betrayal of progressive Victorian values, not a hommage to them.

A lot went missing in the Sixties. The entire church of St Mary Aldermanbury was dismantled and sent to Fulton, Missouri. The Coal Exchange, a more interesting design than Euston Arch, was foolishly knocked down. In New York, they lost the whole of Penn Station. But against these deplorable losses, London and New York put on flamboyant surges in commerce and culture that made them the two greatest cities in the world today. Granted, the excitements of the King’s Road would not have been less if Euston Arch had been retained, but it’s a curious mentality that wants to redress an atrocity by returning to the crime scene rather than moving on.

In the meantime, by all means redevelop Euston station. The horrible, over-shopped concourse is a travesty of the architect’s original intentions. Better instead to commit to building something new that is so fine, no one would ever want to demolish it. Meanwhile, zombie worship of an 1837 propylaeum is civic cowardice, a sad reminder of our national inclination to prefer the view looking backwards. Rebuilding Euston Arch with gourmet rubble would shunt this forlorn part of London up a siding of history. Much better to fast track to an optimistic future.

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Show comments
  • Faceless Bureaucrat

    Of course it should be rebuilt in all its former splendor.

    Having grown-up in the 1960s and witnessed the appalling vandalism visited upon the the great Cities of the UK in the name of ‘modernism’, the least we can now do to try to atone for the devastation perpetrated is to restore where possible that which was lost…

    • flipkipper

      We need to take inspiration from Dubai Airport or even better, Stuttgart Hbf.

      • Hamburger

        Not Stuttgart please. It would never be finished and cost an astronomical amount.

        • flipkipper

          Think with your belly not your head, Bruederchen. Stuttgart is no longer a Kopfbahnhof.

          • Hamburger

            True. The reason it was changed was to shorten the travel time for the trans Europe express between Paris and Bratislava. It does indeed do this. The journey time will be reduced by 7 minuets. It seems to be a little extravagant.

          • flipkipper

            I charge in 6 minute intervals so that ball’s firmly in your court again.

          • Hamburger

            Whatever

          • flipkipper

            Whatever the reason was to change the Kopfbahnhof design in Stuttgart, it wasn’t to cut some journey time by 7 minutes, lad. Why don’t you give Christoph Ingenhoven a call, he will be more than happy to explain.
            Alles klar?

          • Hamburger

            Wenn Sie so meinen.

          • flipkipper

            You can say you to me.

          • Hamburger

            I did. The English abolished the du form many years ago.

          • Callipygian

            You mean the ‘Sie’ form. We kept the informal you (du).

          • Hamburger

            Thee and thou are the Du form. They are only to be found in some dialects nowadays. You is both the formal and plural Sie form.

          • Callipygian

            Oh all right.

    • Callipygian

      I am stunned that, after witnessing the destruction of their cities and monuments by the enemy, the English then committed themselves to the wilful destruction of their own treasures. What foul deformity of mind caused this? Was it a form of Stockholm Syndrome?

  • Greg Tingey

    The idea of rebuilding Euston Arch is a betrayal of progressive Victorian values, not a hommage to them.
    Wrong.
    Although Euston was OPENED in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession to the throne, construction of the London & Birmingham Railway (as it was then) & therefore the design & construction of the “Arch” began back in 1832-33.
    So, please remember that Railways are a Georgian invention?

    • robertsonjames

      Bayley is also correct that the Grecian style was rooted in Stuart and Revett’s work on classical Athens but dead wrong that the Arch was built only a “few years” later.

      The Antiquities of Athens was actually published in 1762 and the Euston structure was built in the 1830s: that’s a far longer period of aesthetic domination than modernism was ever in fashion, and the Greek Revival can therefore hardly be dismissed, as it is by Bayley, as a “passing fad”.

  • rick hamilton

    Euston is not a train station. It is a railway station.

    • Freddythreepwood

      Tick.

    • Callipygian

      Christ: what’s the difference?

      • amicus

        One is correct (railway station) and the other a modern abomination.

  • edithgrove

    So that’s a yes then. It brings to mind the old Penn station, as great a cathedral as any, flattened and replaced by something more hideous than a subterranean terminal 5, now to be rehoused in the adjacent main Post Office. Call it nostalgia if you will, but we need to be welcomed with a little drama when we arrive and the arch will do that. A shopping mall, even the St Pancras kiss, misses the mark.

  • Jonathan Tedd

    When you begin an argunent to the layman with Creative reuse, ironic recontextualising and urban layering….you’ve lost.

    • mdj

      I’m guessing that ‘ironic recontextualising’ means surrounding a fine old building with trendy ugliness, to rub in what we’ve lost, but you’d better ask Mr Bayley to be certain

  • pedestrianblogger

    Anyone who could describe Mogadishu-on-Thames as “the outstanding cosmopolitan world city it is today” should be sectioned.

  • Newton Unthank

    I’m sure there are plenty of contemporary architects capable of designing a new building which isn’t a modernist or brutalist eyesore. No, really. Stop laughing.

    • flipkipper

      Will anyone step forward and make sure Prince Charles is muzzled this time?

      • Malcolm Knott

        Actually, Prince Charles wasn’t muzzled. His book on architecture was well written and persuasive. The rebuttal, rushed out (as I remember) by the then President of the RIBA was a stumbling mish-mash of urban layering, ironic recontexualising and hissy fit.

        • dado_trunking

          His book on architecture is a perversion of town planning and urban design skill, the advocacy of mish-mashing pseudo-classical building detail with Garden City-inspired urban scaping and density are a cheap copy of Leon Krier’s outdated PoMo-nonsense at best.
          Time to employ the professionals. If you believed you could not find them here (I do not do that, necessarily), then get them in from abroad.

          • Malcolm Knott

            It was the professionals who told us the Euston Arch had to go. What’s your view on that, Dado? Were they right?

          • dado_trunking

            Firstly, that professional was probably right at the time. Architecture is a reflction of its time. When the project is no good or inadequate or outdated or outgrown then it requires an overhaul, very few building were ever constructed to be used in the same way, not even the Pantheon. – Q: What is the UK renouned for with regards to architecture and urban planning – travel infratecture?
            A:Hardly. Q: Who does the best travel infratecture?
            A: Well, why don’t you have a good look around? Euston is THE key infrastructure project in the UK, not Heathrow.

            Secondly, I would expect the decision-making processes of all major (public) infrastructure projects to be fully transparent. The architectural competition culture in Britain is in its infancy compared to many other neighbouring nations – that is why most public buildings are rather poor by comparison.

            Thirdly, the Charles was never muzzled. Who does this chap think he is, honestly. What kind of society do you think you live in? This is a serious question posed by a professional.

          • Malcolm Knott

            Being ‘right at the time’ is not much use if hindsight proves you were wrong.
            As to Prince Charles: I think we live in a society where anyone, dustman or prince of the realm, is entitled to express his view on architecture and be heard with respect.
            And in a society which was very badly served by the architects of 1950-1980. (Architects are a little better now, thanks to the force of public opinion,)

          • dado_trunking

            As you wish. So the only way out is to look abroad for inspiration and advice. Fair deuce.

          • obbo12

            How dare people want to live in aesthetically pleasing buildings rather than something designed to please a small number critics that don’t live in them.

            There is reason why Stephen Bailey lives in Georgian town house

          • dado_trunking

            Read Vitruvius: Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas – then we speak again.

          • obbo12

            Yeah because a 2000 year old document is relevant to the urban planning theories of Le Corbusier.

          • dado_trunking

            It is indeed. “Le Corbusier developed the Modulor in the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and other attempts to…”

            wiki the rest yourself, Gawd. Will you chaps educate yourself before coming onto a forum and arguing like a layperson?

          • obbo12

            Small but important point Le Corbusier theories produced the sink estates where no one wants to live. He was bin fat lying idiot beloved of the architectural smugocracy. The self-consciously progressive group dominated by who tend to believe they see the world more clearly and understand people’s interests better than they do themselves. Look in the mirror for prime example.

          • dado_trunking

            Whatever

          • obbo12

            Same old story when confronted with facts you do like you run away.

      • Newton Unthank

        I say let him rip.

  • David T

    Yes.

  • The PrangWizard of England

    I go for the rebuild.

  • TheAuthority88

    I’m often guilty of support for such nostalgia driven projects but in this case I think the old arch is simply ugly. It’s an overbearing and functionless block. It was tacky when it was built and I think it’s tacky now. I’d rather someone came up with something new for Euston station, and it could be neo-classical, neo-gothic, modern, or whatever as long as it appeals to a sense of civic and city pride. Fat chance of that though.

  • jim

    YES

  • Caractacus

    Rebuild it.

    I’m sure someone could run a kickstarter.

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    “Should Euston Arch be raised from the dead?”. Yes. Architects have a duty to history. Walking around in Europe many majestic buildings have place. In Britain the architectural templates of the inner cities are that of a human zoo and seed animal behavior. Culture breeds culture.

  • Malcolm Knott

    The old ticket hall at Euston was also an architectural gem.

  • Edward Cole

    Not only should the arch be reinstated, but it should be in its original position. The bus station should be removed from the station courtyard, and buses should stop on Euston road, where there are now dedicated bus lanes, and easily sufficient space for this. The 21st century answer to the transport problems on Euston Road is to significantly decrease capacity for private cars. Rebuilding the arch at 90 degrees to its original location and hidden out of the way is not satisfactory.

    The rebuilt Euston station behind the arch should not be a ‘witty juxtaposition’ of old and new, but a sensible, dignified building in classical taste and on a proper scale.

  • Freddythreepwood

    To paraphrase a fellow philistine, I don’t know much about architecture, but I know what I like – and I believe that the entire coven of modern architects should be taken to the top of one of their tall monstrosities and cast to the pointed end of St Paul’s – if St. Paul’s has a pointed end that is.

    • Newton Unthank

      …and impaled on the pointy bit.

  • RavenRandom

    Dredge it up, rebuild it, a great use for lottery money. Every time I come across this story I find it almost impossible to understand the impulse to demolish such a fabulous structure.
    Rescue and restore and bury the stupidity of the past.

    • Callipygian

      The idiot men of the 50s and 60s: I could knock their heads all together, the bastards. But I wasn’t yet born.

  • imagin8or

    Pick up some pieces, and pile them back up. Secure them with our best concrete and steel reinforcements, and fill in the gaps left by the callousness of the sixties, the ignorance of the last 50 years; not to recreate, but to demonstrate.

    Let it tell the real story of Britain. Excess in Empire, Carelessness in Concrete, a post-British kingdom. And give it a mocking sign: To The Service Economy.

  • E Hart

    Whether it is rebuilt or not something better ought to meet travelers at Euston. The present station represents the apotheosis of humdrum civic architecture vintage 1960s and is entirely unsuited as a gateway/terminus to a capital city (or even a major provincial city for that matter). It would be nice if the civic authorities were to splash out rather than spend another penny.

    At least the Victorians understood that arriving or departing from London required something grand, imposing, beautiful and functional. A major portal needs drama not understatement. It needs to heighten not diminish expectations. We can reduce everything down to functionality but that is to miss the point. The best journeys, the most memorable ones, aren’t just made in time and space, they’re made in the imagination. We benefit from knowing we are somewhere in particular not everywhere in general.

  • Meshech

    Quinlan Terry should supervise the destruction of these modernist tumors.

  • Callipygian

    Bayley: You mean the cosmopolitan city as it WAS. Apparently the trendy Lefties have ruined it, by making it not even English….

    By the way, I’m all for doing away with pointless ‘an’-words in front of hard English aitches. But surely ‘hommage’ is still pronounced without the aitch (god knows, it’s French), and therefore ‘an’ is required.

  • Bosun Higgs

    The author makes a link between Sixties architecture and Sixties popular culture. The latter looks like a reaction against the former, since Sixties pop culture tried to be everything that the architecture of the period was not: joyful, light, indulgent, humane, colourful, sexy, emotional, sensual, lively and, indeed, popular.

    • amicus

      I disliked both.

  • My Dad the surveyor for British Railways Property Board contracted VALORI to do the demolition, the story goes that it had to start days before a preservation order was slapped on it. The sections not only went to Bromley but also into a garden in Rickmansworth as a water feature. Valori owned that property as well. One of the pillars was hollow had a spiral staircase inside and the transom above was a storage room where the railway company stored old plans etc..

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