Great railway stations have always been thrilling places; 19th-century architects and engineers pulled out the stops to create the most radical and impressive structures that imagination and budgets allowed. Railway managers fought to place their greatest advertisements in the most impressive city-centre locations, their trains stopping just short of cathedrals, city halls, high streets and museums.
The latest generation of British Rail architects has rediscovered this sense of Victorian adventure, as can be seen in the designs for Ashford International Station in Kent and Liverpool Street in London. But one, the most 'international' station in Britain, remains a disgrace.
There is something irredeemably seedy about Victoria, a Siamese twin of a terminus (it comprises two stations, built in the early 1860s for the former London Chatham and Dover and London, Brighton and South Coast Railways). Until the arrival of Channel tunnel trains at Waterloo in the autumn of 1993, however, it will continue to be the railway gateway to the Continent (via Folkestone, Dover and Newhaven), and to the world via the quarter-hourly Gatwick Express.
If the station's interior resembles a souk interpreted by a short-sighted retail designer from Des Moines, its forecourt is a department store of horrors. The bus station is slicked with diesel oil, peppered with deregulated 'pirate' buses and rigorously dismal. To reach it, pedestrians must run a gauntlet of taxis, delivery vans, and 10 ton double-decker buses. The cafes and shops opposite the terminus must have looked past their sell-by date 30 years ago.
After negotiating their way out of this dismal pile of refuse architecture and murderous planning, visitors to London are faced with Victoria Street, a canyon lined with every office-block design cliche from the Sixties and Seventies. Buckingham Palace, the Grail of most tourists, lies yards away but might as well be on the other side of the world.
All this, however, is about to change. London Transport and Greycoat London Estates have joined forces to redesign the station forecourt, and plans, drawn up by the architects Michael Hopkins and Partners, have been submitted to Westminster City Council. Hopkins has an impressive record of remodelling and improving busy historic buildings; recent designs include the Mound Stand at Lord's Cricket Ground; the conversion of the former Financial Times headquarters near St Paul's Cathedral into computer-driven offices and dealing rooms; the enlargement of the opera house at Glyndebourne; and the forthcoming reconstruction of Tottenham Court Road Underground station.
The Hopkins scheme for Victoria will protect pedestrians from the traffic by taking them out on to a new piazza. The new bus station, a handsome steel and glass structure that echoes the station's eastern train shed, will be reached by a short and safe path. Exits and concourses of the Underground station will be enlarged (with access built in for the proposed Chelsea- Hackney Tube-line platforms), and the way to Victoria Street will be protected by the umbrella-like projecting storeys of two new office buildings, featuring shops and cafes at pavement level.
These cystalline buildings - one in the centre of the proposed piazza, the other between the new bus station and Buckingham Palace Road - have been designed to pay for the improvements to the terminus. Greycoat London Estates believes that it can let these Hopkins-designed buildings far more readily than the masses of empty office space in central London.
Not only will Hopkins have the chance to design high-quality office buildings from scratch to match the image and suit the needs of modern international business corporations, but also the location is ideal (30 minutes from Gatwick airport and minutes from the City and West End). Although big, neither building promises to be a monster, and the 22-storey tower proposed for the centre of the piazza will provide a focal point for the vista along Victoria Street from Westminster City Hall, the Army & Navy Stores and McDonald's.
In townscape terms, Hopkins's solution is a good one. What might be questioned is the need for yet more office space in this part of the city. Victoria, however, needs to be improved, and high-quality office space, preferably pre-let to high-quality companies, is likely to be the best way of meeting the cost of rebuilding this international gateway to London efficiently and well.
A half-hearted solution would be a waste of everyone's time. London Transport and its developers have been wise to turn to Michael Hopkins. He has proved that engineering-led modern architecture can be extremely sensitive to historic settings and can, as these plans prove, redeem areas that have been blighted seemingly beyond repair.
The plans are on public display and the developers and architects want to hear from the public. Here is a chance for London to get it right: everyone who wants to have a say should do so now. Victoria is not just a station in London; it is also a gateway to Britain.
Plans for the proposed Victoria Transport Interchange are on show until 23 October at 9-10 Terminus Place, Victoria Station, London SW1, Monday-Friday, 7.30am-6.30pm.
(Illustration omitted)Reuse content