If you’re the sort of person to notice a railway station, Manchester Oxford Road is one of the ones you’ll definitely notice. “It hasn’t changed since I used to visit Manchester to do my Diploma of Bacteriology,” said my Dad when I showed him the photos I took last month, in the process revealing a fact about his medical training of which I’d previously been unaware. One of my friends remembered it from his, “…misspent teenage years in Manchester. Oxford Road station was forever covered in scaffolding to hold it up (or so I was told).”
It’s a one-off, unlike any other station on the national rail network. If it resembles anything, it’s a cross between the Sydney Opera House and a piece of stylish 1960s furniture. Most notably, it’s largely built from wood. It’s not an unknown building material for railway stations, and many early American stations were wooden (see here for an article on the surviving wooden railroad depot at the Grand Canyon in Arizona). It’s never been typical for stations in Britain though, except for rural halts with small buildings. Manchester Oxford Road is on a different scale altogether.
It was designed in the early days of British Railways by the London Midland region’s chief architect W R Headley, alongside project architect Max Clendinning. They were faced with a particular challenge at Oxford Road. The existing station, built in 1874, needed to be replaced, but the viaduct at the station site was unable to support the weight of a conventional modern station. The solution was to use wood, and Headley/Clendinning worked with the Timber Development Association’s Hugh Tottenham to come up with the lightweight design.
It’s not a station that necessarily photographs terribly well, at least not with my photography skills. Its main building is huge, and without a wide-angle lens it’s very difficult to give a sense of the scale of it. Here is what you see from the station forecourt:
The main building is essentially a giant wooden canopy which shelters the facilities underneath. It’s not supported on walls, but rather on a cruck frame, also made of wood. The shape of the roof is complicated, comprising three conoid timber shells nesting within one another. It’s this arrangement that causes the striking visual resemblance to the Sydney Opera House, although to really understand the roof’s form, you need to see it from above. Short of a hot air balloon, I’ve instead turned to a Network Rail artist’s impression, the purpose of which I’ll return to later.
Look carefully and you can see how the three roof shells nest together, as well as the supporting cruck frame (see the little leg on the right, where the roof meets a canopy that seems to be serving no purpose?). The largest of the three shells is the one nearest the forecourt, at 29m across. The smallest is the one at the back, at 13m across.
The building’s frame is made of glu-lam, an engineered wood. If you have any Scandinavian-style furniture in your house, the likelihood is you’re already familiar with it. It was also enormously popular for making the frames of small school chairs at one time, and similar models can still be obtained. Glu-lam (or glued laminate to give it its full name) is formed of thin pieces of wood, glued together with special super-strong adhesive. It is (relatively) easy to make curved shapes from it, because the thinner pieces of wood can be bent into shape before being glued together. This benefitted IKEA when its designers invented the super-stylish Poäng chair, and Headley/Clendinning/Tottenham when they invented the new Manchester Oxford Road station. It opened in 1960.
Much of the station’s roof structure is surfaced with hardwood strips, on the outside vertical faces, and on the ceilings inside. The wide ends of the cones are filled with glass windows, which lets plenty of light in, but makes photographing the interior difficult because the light overwhelms the interior detail. Parissien (2001) makes the useful comparison to a building other than Sydney Opera House, pointing out the similarity with the glazing arrangements at the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York.
It’s definitely its own place though, not quite like either of those when experienced. The wooden panelling is acoustically useful, absorbing a lot of sound and making for a surprisingly peaceful-feeling station concourse. And with those lofty roofs overhead, there is a real sense of space too.
Originally, the lighting within the main building was rather more diffuse. The large panes of glass are the result of a recent refurbishment. Originally the station building had wooden slats across the windows, which lasted until the late 1980s. You can see the original effect in this 1960s photo, which shows the layout under the roof, looking towards the main entrance.
On the left is a facilities building, made of concrete but clad in wood panelling (you’ll notice in the more recent photograph above that the panelling has been since been lost, which detracts from the appearance of the station). In the middle are some groovy wooden ticket booths, since replaced with a modern automated gateline, and on the right is the ticket office and buffet building, which has rounded ends. It is made up from repeated wooden framed bays, which are splendidly detailed with sides which taper away from a central horizontal section.
You might not be surprised to learn that Clendinning went on to have a very successful later career as an interior and furniture designer. When looking at the bays of the ticket office/buffet building, it is hard not to be reminded of 1950s/60s furniture of the sort produced by G-Plan, or perhaps something like this coffee table.
The main building is flanked by two platform canopies, again supported on similar crucks to the main building. The one on the north side is on a bay platform which used to serve terminating trains from Altrincham, before those services were absorbed into Manchester’s Metrolink light rail network. Crossing via the footbridge (not of special interest, suggests statutory heritage body Historic England) brings you to an island platform. Two further canopies of a similar design, placed back to back, shelter passengers on this platform. However, they don’t actually have backs, being supported on crucks again, and the join is marked by a spine of raised arched glazing.
Again, the ceilings are finished in hardwood strips, and there are lozenge-shaped skylights to let the light in. It’s an enormously stylish piece of station infrastructure.
The accretions of modern railway stations detract from the purity, austerity even, of Headley/Clendinning/Tottenham’s original design. Compare the 1960s photos (you can find several more at RIBApix, here) with those taken today, and you can’t help but notice the extra realtime display screens, vending machines, advertising posters, and (in the case of Pumpkin Cafe in the buffet building) insensitive vinyls over the windows. But I guess you can’t retain a building in its pure form in the face of changing passenger expectations, or indeed the need of railway businesses to make some extra cash. As an aside, you might have noticed that even Transport for London has succumbed to the lure of suitcases full of money and has horribly compromised its flagship Canary Wharf London Underground station with two massive advertising screens hanging from the station’s hitherto beautiful and uncluttered ceiling.
There is still much to admire at Manchester Oxford Road though, despite the modern intrusions. The main entrance is a spectacular piece of wooden sculpture, stepping back many times from the outer frame to the doors themselves. Just inside those doors is a beautiful (and unused as far as I can tell) newsagent’s kiosk, faced with wood of course, and with the legend “Finlays” (a local newsagency) inset into the wood above the counter. The original clocks still hang under the platform canopies, too.
If Pumpkin Cafe isn’t really showing the respect for its surroundings that the quality of Manchester Oxford Road’s design deserves, the rail industry itself does seem aware of what it has on its hands. The station’s roof was refurbished in the late 1990s by architects Austin-Smith:Lord, working for Railtrack (which would have been when my friend experienced the scaffolding). More recently, new shelters have been installed on the platforms to provide additional space for passengers. Transport infrastructure specialist Consortia was employed to design and build the bespoke shelters, and like Clendinning’s station, they are made of wood too. The new shelters are clad in African Iroko wood and harmonise well with the older station building, without pretending to be contemporaneous.
There look set to be further changes ahead for Manchester Oxford Road. Network Rail’s Northern Hub project is expected see the railway viaduct through the station widened to allow for more train services. A new and much larger footbridge is planned to replace the existing one, and this will cut off the Altrincham bay platform, which is why in the artist’s impression towards the beginning of this article it looks a little lost. That’s a small price to pay, though.
According to one writer, Oxford Road station is, “perhaps the most architecturally significant British station of the whole postwar period” (Parissien, 2001). Historic England meanwhile describes it as, “one of the best post-war railway stations in the country, with a striking and highly elegant design,” and listed it at Grade II in 1995. In my head, it’s Britain’s only wooden cathedral of the railways.
For a long time, Manchester Oxford Road was a unique example of a major British glu-lam station. In recent years the material has had something of a resurgence as a railway station building material. The new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf has a rooftop garden sheltered by a roof constructed of glu-lam beams. The National Rail/Crossrail interchange at Abbey Wood in south-east London will also have a glu-lam roof.
How to find Manchester Oxford Road station
Bibliography and Further Reading
Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. English Heritage: Swindon
Parissien, Steven (2001): Station to Station. Phaidon Press: London
Historic England’s listing citation for the station, here
Austin-Smith:Lord’s project page for the station refurbishment, here
Consortia’s project page for the new station shelters, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.
About next week…
The Beauty of Transport is moving house next week so I’ll be taking a week off and there won’t be an article on 19 July. I’ll endeavour to be back with something the week after, but I can’t guarantee it will make much sense. Moving house is stressful.