Architecture: Opening the gate to Europe

London's disembarkation point for Eurostar travellers is not a pretty site. But it could be.
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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST glimpse of London that any Eurostar traveller from Paris or Brussels gets on arrival at Waterloo is a seriously congested multi- lane highway. A cement walkway on stilts from the Sixties crooks its leg at them. There are more barriers than all the riot police in Paris can muster. All the buildings face the river and present their backside to the visitor. Worse, you have to wait for the green man at six pedestrian crossings to reach the river.

The "Gateway to Europe", as our Prime Minister has taken to calling our eight international termini, is not a pretty sight. Yet the International Terminal at Waterloo is used by 20,000 passengers a day, a figure likely to double in the next three years.

Chaos greets the overseas visitors and the quarter of a million commuters for whom Waterloo is the end of the line. Not for much longer, though, with a new initiative to create Waterloo Square.

"Do you think it would qualify as a World Square?" asks Paul Lincoln, marketing manager for the South Bank Employers' Group. He is hopeful that it might get John Prescott's attention when Norman Foster presents his master plan for World Squares on 20 August, starting with the first phase, the pedestrianisation of the north side of Trafalgar Square.

More pressing by far is Waterloo - "an assault on the senses for commuters and international travellers," as Ian Coull of South Bank Employers describes it.

In truth it is not a square, but Waterloo Place in front of the Viceroy House, a handsome 19th-century building with a flourish or two on its facade, has just been given the go-ahead for pedestrianisation by Lambeth Council's London traffic planning department. That puts it leagues ahead of Norman Foster's scheme for Parliament Square which was turned down by Westminster Council.

The stream of taxis arriving at Waterloo will have to turn back on themselves in a big loop at the drop-off point. Walks along Waterloo Bridge into the big, open Southwark underpass are just waiting for some public art to grace the brick walls. Shops and restaurants will open in its vaulted arches. "Neglect the big areas to wait for the big picture to emerge and property prices spiral downwards," says architect Alex Lifschutz, who is realistic about these retail opportunities.

The firm Lifschutz Davidson came up with the proposals for a well designed public square outside Waterloo after the South Bank Employers' Group commissioned Llewelyn Davies in 1993 to produce an urban design strategy for the entire South Bank area. The centrepiece of their recommendations was the provision of ground-level pedestrian routes to and from Waterloo Station.

Now the scheme links up with Charing Cross and the Strand on the north bank of the Thames via the new Hungerford Bridge. It will also connect directly to the transformed spine route of Upper Ground.

"The design of Waterloo Place is intended to encourage people who use the station to explore the neighbourhood," says Mr Lifschutz. "People will walk directly from Victory Arch on to a lively new public square."

To help them get off their bikes, Mr Lincoln has made a series of posters declaring, "Walk - it's nearer than you think", and giving us the time it takes on foot to reach various destinations along the route.

He cannot wait for Mr Foster's Millennium Bridge to span the Thames so that he can time a stroll across it from St Paul's to the new Tate at Bankside. Ten minutes, say? "Maybe 20." He looks speculatively across the Thames.

The area will never be car-free but the emphasis is on public transport and the next phase will be the development of the eco-bus to create a low-emission service linking Covent Garden with the South Bank, Bankside, London Bridge and the Tower of London.

Four central London boroughs, London Transport and Government Office for London are working with the Cross Rivers partnership to make this more than a tourist bus to the South Bank arts centre. It will call in at St Thomas' Hospital and Guy's as well.

Never far behind the businessmen's proposals is the remainder of the community who live in the area - only 6,000 of them - which is just now beginning to feel like a real neighbourhood.