Lost Beauty #1: The One that Sailed Away (King’s Cross International, London, UK)

This week marked a year since the opening of the eye-catching Western Concourse at King’s Cross, with its dramatic sculptural roof. What better way to celebrate than to ignore this and look instead at the earlier dramatic sculptural roof of King’s Cross International? Surely I must mean St Pancras International? No, I don’t; but let me explain.

Mostly The Beauty of Transport covers ways in which transport has made the world more beautiful, or influenced culture, that you can actually experience for yourself. Sometimes, however, projects were abandoned before construction or have been demolished subsequently. These are the lost beauties; the ones I really regret got away.

King’s Cross International is one such. Photos of it are few and far between, and those below are courtesy of a link to flickr (here, and with huge thanks to the flickr member for posting them), which is the only place I’ve found most of them, though I can remember the design vividly.

Kings Cross Master Plan by Norman Foster
King’s Cross International. Via the “Share” button on this flickr page.
Kings Cross Master Plan by Norman Foster
King’s Cross International between St Pancras (left) and King’s Cross (right). Via the “Share” button on this flickr page.

Once upon a time (well, around 1987 if you want to be more exact), British Rail (BR) wanted to link the Channel Tunnel to London with a new high speed railway. It would split in two near London with one branch running mostly on the surface through south London to the existing Waterloo International station, while the other branch would run in tunnel to a new underground station in north London, located between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. This new low-level station was often described as a terminus, but it wouldn’t have been, because those were the days when Eurostar through trains to the north of England were planned.

Above the underground platforms of the International station (which would also have accommodated a new set of Thameslink platforms to replace King’s Cross Thameslink), Norman Foster designed a simply beautiful floaty booking hall, as part of a master plan for the whole King’s Cross railway lands area (then inaccessible and verging on the derelict). The triangular plan roof, comprised of smaller triangular sail sections surrounded by skylight panels, was an elegant solution for a tricky site: King’s Cross and St Pancras are angled with respect to one other, leaving a reasonable space between them at their north ends, but relatively little at their south ends, fronting Euston Road. The tall glass walls of Foster’s booking hall left the sails that made up the roof apparently floating in mid air, touching only at their vertices, and would have allowed a lot of light down into the low-level platforms. It was an unusual design for a high speed railway station, resting very little on typical railway architecture, yet somehow the glazed triple arches at the north end (the upper right of the pictures above) recall and advance the forms of the single trainshed roof at St Pancras and the double barrel roofs at King’s Cross. It was almost like Foster designed it that way…

There were just a few problems with BR’s utopian vision. Firstly, the new King’s Cross International would have required the demolition of Lewis Cubitt’s Great Northern Hotel, to which many people were unaccountably attached, and made a big fuss of saying so. I don’t want to suggest that they may have confused themselves into thinking that someone was proposing to demolish the Midland Grand in front of St Pancras, but to this day I find it hard to understand the protest over the loss of the Great Northern. Perhaps it’s just me. It probably is – it’s listed by English Heritage at Grade II, so there must be some merit to it.

The second problem was that BR’s southern approach to London would have required substantial property demolition. While the Victorians would have just gone ahead and done it anyway, the world had changed since then and railway construction could no longer take the same cavalier approach.

Consultancy Ove Arup saw an opening amidst the controversy and proposed a rival route via east London (and Stratford in particular), terminating at St Pancras. This gained popular and political support, partly because of the regeneration benefits that were expected to flow to east London.

By 1993, it was all over, and BR abandoned its plans for King’s Cross International, accepting the route via east London and the use of St Pancras as its International terminal. There were a fair few design changes between then and the opening of High Speed 1 in December 2009, including the idea of moving St Pancras’s Midland Main Line domestic trains to King’s Cross (how would they ever have fitted in?). The initial idea of using surface tracks paralleling the North London Line to get from east London to St Pancras, rather than the tunnel which was eventually built all the way between Stratford and St Pancras (a boring solution in both senses), was abandoned in the mid 2000s. But in essence, this was the moment that King’s Cross International died, Waterloo International became a white elephant (serving its intended purpose for only 13 years), and High Speed 1 as we would recognise it now came into existence. The new Thameslink platforms replacing King’s Cross Thameslink would be built under St Pancras International instead of King’s Cross International, but the concept is the same.

King’s Cross International is little remembered today except by those with an interest in the latter years of British Rail, or perhaps in the early years of Foster+Partners. The loss of the scheme seems to rankle with Foster+Partners still: it’s barely mentioned on the firm’s website, referred to in passing and not as a specific project. There are echoes of the design in some later works, in particular the roof of Florence TAV station in Italy, currently under construction, so at the least the work wasn’t entirely wasted.

The Western Concourse at King’s Cross which celebrates its first birthday this week occupies some of the same land as King’s Cross International would have done. It’s funny to think, looking up at this…

The roof of the western concourse, King's Cross station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013
The roof of the western concourse, King’s Cross station, London. © Daniel Wright 2013

…that it could have been a different roof, and a different station, altogether.

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