At Waterloo the English did surrender

We don't usually take kindly to new buildings, but there is one whose glittering glass and romantic promise are rapidly making it the most popular in Britain. Jonathan Glancey meets some of its fans
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The Independent Culture
Pam was aghast at the thought of a train that could race direct from London to Paris under the Channel.

"What!" he thundered (for Pam, speaking in 1858, against a bill to dig a tunnel between Folkestone and Calais, was a man; none other, in fact, than Lord Palmerston, the prime minister). "You ask us to contribute to a work, the object of which is to shorten a distance we already find too short?"

Victorian Pam had no time for Paris or the fishy French, unlike Nineties Pam, a telephonist from Walton-on-Thames, leaning against the stainless- steel railing overlooking the entrance to Waterloo International at six o'clock last Friday evening.

Pam is saving up for a pair of super-savers that will take her and her lover from Walton to Waterloo and on via the crystalline International Terminal to the Gare du Nord ... and Paris in the springtime. She is just one among 20 or so people loafing here between trains, dreaming of croissants and cafe au lait. A few tantalising yards away glint the twin objects that can fulfil her desires: the anguilliform, 300km/h Eurostar trains and the gleaming architectural carapace they bask under between cross- Channel sprints. "I have a bit of a gawp at the new station every day on my way in and out of Waterloo," says Pam. "It cheers me up when I look at it and think that, if I was really bad and had the wherewithal and my passport on me, I could give the office a miss and be in Paris for lunch."

Matthew Stourton, a solicitor from Haslemere, stands a few feet from Pam Lawrence, awaiting a train. He thinks along Lawrentian tracks aided and abetted by what smells like a jumbo G&T, ice'n'slice, twice. "It's evenings like this when I think of the kids sulking about their paltry trust-fund payouts and her taking their side, that I feel like jumping aboard a Eurostar and falling into the arms of a 20-year-old Brigitte Bardot at Gare du Nord."

Tom and Deirdre Gorman would love to escape to Paris, flask in flask, just for a day, but can't begin to imagine where the fare would come from. "We come up to Waterloo on cheap day returns from Walthamstow with our senior citizen cards. Since Tom retired, he likes to photograph trains. He's really taken by the international station." Tom, grey, zip-up weatherproof jacket, beige V-neck jumper, pressed grey slacks, grey hair and grey slip- on shoes affirms in a polite grunt while aiming his Canon Sureshot at the regiment of Eurostar locomotives, a tantalising 200ft away. "Shame we can't get a platform ticket, isn't it?" says Deirdre. "Tom would like to take some close-ups".

Next in line, leaning on the railing, are Hans Bamberg and Rudi Krisanitz, two architecture students from Berlin. "We came to London on the Eurostar," says Rudi, "to see the new architecture here. First off, we wanted to see the new station by Nicholas Grimshaw."

How does it rate? Hans and Rudi agree. "Very good." "What I like most," says Hans, "is the way that the building is both hi-tech and what you might call organic in the same moment. I think the curved form is very English. If we were having only straight lines, then I think it would not be such an exciting project."

Waterloo International is an exciting project. It has caught the imagination of Londoners, commuters and visitors to the capital like no other contemporary building. It is one of the few contemporary buildings that appears to have caught the normally conservative imagination of the British public. Perhaps only the Grand Midland Hotel, the salmon-pink Gothic confection that fronts St Pancras station and now revealed in all its knights-in- armour, damsels-in-distress glory rivals Waterloo International in the architectural "ooh" and "aah" stakes.

Taxi drivers, non-train-robbing flower-sellers, platform staff and a unanimous cross-section of passengers who come here to catch trains and "customers" who come to enjoy a spot of "dwell time" (rooting around for socks, knickers, videos, small, medium and large cappuccinos) appear to have nothing but praise for the station that Nick Grimshaw built (Grimshaw plus a host of assistant architects, engineers, welders, glaziers and Jean-Luc Wilmouth, the Parisian artist who made the giant turquoise sand- eels that hang from the roof and wriggle when trains depart).

But is the building's appeal due to its romantic associations (Paris in the springtime etc) or because it ranks as a work of first-class architecture? It is not standard class, that much is for certain, although, curiously, Grimshaw's earliest designs showed a building almost devoid of the serpentine curves that Hans Bamberg and Rudi Krisanitz rightly identify as being a part of its essential Englishness.

British Rail engineers and local planning restrictions insisted on a serpentine approach all the way to the buffer-stops at the concourse end of the new terminal ("terminal" is used instead of the traditional "terminus" to suggest that Eurostar is not a train, but a plane-on-rails offering all the chic accoutrements of international flight). This decision, and Grimshaw's response to it, imbues the building with magic. Because it twists and turns, the structure seems almost alive. It offers something of the experience of other great curving railway stations - York, famous among them - through which slow-moving trains announce themselves in full articulated glory.

Waterloo has other charms. Its design is resonant with echoes of an engineering- inspired English architecture of which most of us are proud. Here you will find a nod to Paxton's Crystal Palace and a wink to the Palm House at Kew Gardens. There is a touch of the dinosaur galleries of the University Musem, Oxford, and the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. And then, of course, there are straightforward references to the great English trainsheds - Barlow's column-free iron and glass roof at St Pancras protecting the Midland Compounds of yesterday and the InterCity HSTs of today in an embrace of structural ingenuity.

What else? Waterloo International appears to run like clockwork, which appeals to the child in us playing with a train-set.

Look at those big analogue clocks counting down the minutes to departure; no digital nonsense here. Look at the bright yellow, Meccano-like cog- wheels that raise and lower the lifts from concourse to security gates. And - look - how, inside or outside, you can see the elongated trains purring in and out of the terminal. In so many stations of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, trains were hidden from public view, as if there was something shameful about them. Euston, Charing Cross and Birmingham New Street are three offenders that spring to mind.

No building is perfect and Waterloo International does have its flaws, although these will be invisible to those who cannot afford to ride the continental trains. Once past the slap-happy Eurostar charm girls and security gates, passengers are faced with a sea of grey wool-nylon mix. Oh for wood, slate or marble floors, but the overriding English obsession with "comfort" and "luxury" that spells c-a-r-p-e-t in every public building reduces the intelligence of this special place (it is also guaranteed to get dirty and covered in black pats of masticated chewing gum). So, too, do the gawdy "dwell time" shops and the fact that you are not allowed to wander along the platforms (no pimply trainspotting here) until five minutes or so before the train leaves.

These are quibbles, good old English grumbles in the "wrong kind of snow" school of sniping against the railways. Waterloo International is an inspired building, an adventure in steel and glass, a place that promises, like the wardrobe in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to spirit us away to a more glamorous life, one in which the champagne flows and foie gras abounds, and evenings resound to Edith Piaf.

Even with the promise of Piaf and Pigalle, no run-of-the-mill railway station could have this effect on us. And all this less than 10 yards away from the prosaic commuter train that will take Pam Lawrence, all stations and "ooh-la-la!" dreams, home to Walton-on-Thames.