UNLIKE their 20th-century rivals the motorways, railways have inspired many good buildings. While motorways struggle into life at one end and disappear into nowhere at the other, railways have the great city termini as their gateways and destinations. Motorway service areas, in comparison, are little more than glorified camp sites in an automotive subtopia.
Meanwhile, against the odds of an unsupportive government, railways are again employing good architects both from the private and what remains of the public sector. If proof were needed of the former, one need only look at the new Channel tunnel terminal at Waterloo, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners. And of the latter? Take the train to Woolwich Arsenal and see the new station there by British Rail's own architects. It is, like their celebrated remodelling of Liverpool Street station, architecture of a high calibre.
Railway architecture has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years. Nothing could have been worse than the designs produced in the Sixties and Seventies. Quite how the world's first trunk railway, the London to Birmingham (1837), ended up with stations as dispiriting as Euston at one end and Birmingham New Street at the other hardly bears thinking about. Both look like Third World airport buildings without the charm.
Grimshaw's Waterloo terminal, with its extraordinary organic vault, is probably the most exciting railway building in Britain this century. However, the success of this design from a private practice should not blind us to the excellence of British Rail's own architects. The anonymous-sounding Architecture and Design Group, a stand-alone company under the umbrella of British Rail, is one of the most under-rated architecture practices in the country.
The group must compete with the private sector for work and has to turn in a profit. It is led by Nick Derbyshire. He and his colleagues, including Alastair Lansley, the associate director, are probably best known to the public for their recently completed work on Liverpool Street station.
The much acclaimed rebuilding and refurbishment of Liverpool Street station revealed afresh an innovative 19th-century gem that could be adapted to 21st-century needs without butchering its design. But Derbyshire and Lansley are modern architects, not conservationists. The proof of this is in the new pounds 1.2m station they have designed at Woolwich Arsenal. Commissioned by Network SouthEast, it was started in December 1992 and has just opened.
The result is a beautiful, pavilion- like building rich in visual references: there is a strong nautical flavour - the River Thames flows nearby - provided by the glass and steel beacon that rises directly over the ticket hall. At night this glows with blue light. Engineering references are obvious in every aspect of the structure and these complement the tradition of rugged but picturesque design to be found in such buildings as the nearby Royal Arsenal (by Sir John Vanbrugh, 1720).
The outside of the station has a lightweight canopy that runs along at first-storey height; it is a little like an aircraft wing, and lifts the building by increasing the illusion of height. At night the canopy is lit by spotlights from below and appears to float.
Woolwich Arsenal is also like a carefully detailed line drawing: the railings around the beacon, the handrails at the entrances, the clean joints between the stonework on the pillars and delicate frames for the glasswork create an effect like three-dimensional embroidery. The reconstituted stone pillars and granite floor give the building a reassuring solidity.
However, the most obvious allusion in Woolwich Arsenal station is to the work of the architect Charles Holden, who created a string of famous stations for the London Underground's Piccadilly line in the Thirties. Holden dignified commuting by creating stations that were like Classical temples updated in a Modern Movement idiom. They are topped with steeples or towers, which act as beacons to announce the presence of the station. Woolwich Arsenal picks up where Charles Holden left off.
Woolwich employs ideas that the Architecture and Design Group will refine in their much bigger project at Ashford International Station, one of the main staging posts in the Channel tunnel rail link.
The environmental reality of the Channel tunnel and its rail link is increased noise, pollution and the destruction and disruption of an already much-bruised Kent landscape. Consequently, the only redeeming features will be the new buildings. The Architecture and Design Group recognises this, which is why they want to make a station that has finesse.
This pounds 80m scheme will develop as follows: the existing southern platform island at Ashford station will be kept for Network SouthEast services, which in addition will receive a new island platform to the north; another pair of existing island platforms will be lengthened and used exclusively for international services. A new two- storey international station building will be built south of the railway and Network SouthEast will have a new single-storey station. Bridges and subways will link all areas of the complex.
Appropriately, Derbyshire and Lansley have found inspiration for Ashford in the famous Maison de Verre building in Paris designed by Pierre Chareau in 1928. Designed as a flat and consulting room for a doctor, the Maison de Verre uses industrial materials, such as glass bricks, with internally exposed steel structure and a studded rubber flooring. For modern architects, the Maison de Verre is concrete poetry.
Glass bricks and the delicate lines of the steel beams will be features of the Ashford buildings. But although the upper storeys will have the pavilion-like air demonstrated at Woolwich, the ground level will be reassuringly substantial.
The visual metaphors of public transport have to suggest both seriousness and grace. Everything contributes, including the colour schemes. Network SouthEast's appalling skinhead Union Jack colour scheme of sunburn red, white and cortina blue is yobbish. Interestingly, wherever it gets the chance, the Architecture and Design Group appears to drop the red and introduce a richer, more royal blue.
The Ashford station will not be Woolwich Arsenal enlarged many times. Alastair Lansley says that details from one project cannot be simply scaled up and expected to work satisfactorily in another, larger building. The goal for Ashford is simplicity and a clear layout for passengers.
In the past, the great railway companies expressed their individuality and rivalry through the design of buildings, locomotives and even the cutlery in the restaurant cars. Today, although privatisation is in the offing, we are unlikely to see a return to such proud competition.
The best we can hope for is that Railtrack, the new body in charge of track, also will be responsible for standards of design and maintenance of the stations rather than leaving this to the franchisees. It is to be hoped the Architecture and Design Group survives and thrives: this repository of knowledge and skill represents a remarkable flowering of commitment to public service that, unfashionable in 1993, might be just what is needed if the railways again come to be viewed as an integrated public service.
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