The train I have been waiting for is running late. Very late. And when a train is running as late as mine is, you’d better hope you have somewhere very nice to wait. Fortunately, I do; as night falls, I can while away my time in a fairy-tale garden.
This article, you see, was originally slated to run at the turn of 2018/19, coinciding with the opening of London’s new east-west Crossrail scheme. Unfortunately, during 2018 it became clear that opening date would be missed, and after some traumatic and all-too-public recalculations Crossrail is now expected to open in the latter part of 2020. As an aside, the sooner big transport infrastructure projects adopt the practice of giving “no earlier than” dates for their opening, rather than “forecast to open” dates, the better. I’m not going to wait until 2020 to write up Crossrail’s flagship station on its newly tunnelled central section, and luckily I don’t have to, because most of it opened in 2015, well in advance of even Crossrail’s most optimistic completion date.
Exceptionally, therefore, this week’s article is about a mixed use shopping and leisure development. Welcome to Crossrail Place, Foster+Partners’ new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf. Crossrail Place is the surface building for the new Crossrail station. If I have to go back in 2020 to report back on the underground ticket and platform levels, then so be it. In the meantime, what’s on the surface is plenty to be getting on with.
Like many major new stations and station redevelopments around the world (the Oculus and Fulton Transit Center in New York, Birmingham New Street/Grand Central in the UK to pluck just a couple from the archives) Crossrail Place sees commerce and a railway station’s transport functions intertwined in a single development. You’ll have your own views on the desirability of this trend, and purists will always resent the intrusion of commerce into railway stations. Yet it’s hardly a new development. In the 1920s, you could find a suburban railway terminus being built with a parade of shops part of the station design, at Grove Park in south-east Greater London. Even much-admired stations like Grand Central Terminal in New York are no strangers to commerce encroaching into a transport facility. The Oyster Bar there was always popular with non-railroad travellers and New Yorkers.
Whatever our purist views about how railway stations ought to be, the simple reality is that mixed commerce/transport developments will continue to be key in helping funding new stations, so we might as well get used to them.
Crossrail Place sits in West India Quay Dock to the north of One Canada Square, the original Canary Wharf skyscraper. The piecemeal development of transport around Canary Wharf has led to plenty of transport idiosyncrasies, such that the nearest Docklands Light Railway station to the Canary Wharf development might be Canary Wharf station itself, but the nearest DLR station to the Jubilee line’s Canary Wharf station is actually Heron Quays. Similarly, Crossrail Place/Canary Wharf Crossrail station is much closer to the DLR’s Poplar station than its Canary Wharf station. Don’t even get me started on the distance you have to walk to the Canary Wharf Riverbus pier.
Although its physical integration into the wider local public transport network might be questionable, one thing which is unarguable is that Crossrail Place successfully represents a new landmark building for Crossrail at Canary Wharf, a highly visible and dramatic intervention in the built environment. That’s no mean feat amongst the modern architecture of Canary Wharf. It achieves this not through height, as most of Canary Wharf’s new developments do, but through length.
Approaching some 300m long, Crossrail Place is enormous; so long that it spans a local road, which runs right through the heart of the building towards the eastern end. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across anything quite like it. Crossrail Place’s size is the surface expression of the railway station which for now remains hidden below. Crossrail’s trains and platforms are on a completely different scale from those on the London Underground, and the platforms at Canary Wharf are 240m long.
The surface building has five storeys and contains an array of shops, restaurants and a cinema, making it a destination in its own right, as well as serving Crossrail passengers. Its most obvious visual characteristic is its roof, which extends downwards and wraps the sides of the building. Between spruce timber beams, the roof is filled in with triangular panels of inflated ETFE membrane. At each end, the roof extends outwards, like the prow of a ship. Long-term readers will find the overall shape of Crossrail Place familiar; it is strongly influenced by Foster+Partners’ 2013 Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong, also located at a dock, but a bigger one designed to serve cruise ships even longer than Crossrail trains. Crossrail Place’s impressive 240m length would be dwarfed by Kai Tak Cruise Terminal’s if they were placed next to each other; the latter is some 850m long.
Like Kai Tak Terminal, Crossrail Place has a roof garden, running almost the full length of the building, designed by landscape architects Gillespies. It is partially sheltered by the roof, with some sections protected by the triangular ETFE panels, but left open towards the middle to allow in light and rain for the plants, and again at both ends so that visitors can enjoy the views.
Impressive in the daytime, at night and at dusk, when I visited, it is quite magical. This is no meanly-designed square of lawn passing itself off as a park to get planning permission for a major development. This garden is thoroughly-considered with an impressive planting scheme, where trees from east and west are planted at the east and west ends of the park, as appropriate. Paths wind through the trees and shrubs, and benches are dotted here and there to allow for visitors to take in their surroundings. A sensitive lighting scheme addresses personal security concerns but doesn’t simply flood the garden with flat light from lighting columns. The rest of the building also looks splendid at night, reflected in the dark waters surrounding it. Illuminated sculptures along the south side of the station add visual interest.
It is in the park that the architecture and engineering of the roof can be best admired. Although the roof curves around the building, all but four of the timber beams from which the lattice is constructed are straight. The curved roof is creating by steel ‘nodes’ into which the timber beams fit at various angles.
Despite the size of Crossrail Place and its imposing presence, it has been designed with the intention of linking together communities to its north and south. Permeability of the Docklands has long been a problem with the water-filled docks presenting barriers to land-based movement. As well as the road which runs through the eastern end of the building, and alongside which there are pavements for pedestrians, there are pedestrian-only bridges linking Crossrail Place north and south at the western end of the building. The most dramatic of these is the building that connects the first floor of the building to Canada Place.
It is one of a couple of sci-fi touches at Crossrail Place; it feels like it should be the jetway for a Fireflash aircraft. Meanwhile, the enormous rectangular grilles at each end of the building, which mark the end of the ventilation shafts for Crossrail below, would fit neatly into any Blade Runner-esque megacity techno-dystopia. Canary Wharf as a whole has always had a slight air of unreality about it in any case, this merely adds to it.
As a mixed-use development, Crossrail Place is a success. It contains not just shops, restaurants and cinema, but also a bank and a health centre. From the outside, visual discipline is maintained by the repetition of standard shop units along the length of the building underneath the ETFE roof, keeping the chaos of commerce under control. Escalators and lifts connect the various levels of the building, at the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. Eventually, these access points will also allow travellers to move downwards to the new Crossrail platforms below. In the meantime, Crossrail Place is an impressive contribution to the Canary Wharf area and one of the earliest benefits of Crossrail to be realised.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Crossrail’s official webpage for Canary Wharf station, here
Foster+Partners project page for Crossrail Place, here
Gillespies project page for the Crossrail Place roof garden, here