Sunday, 16 December 2012

In August this blog reproduced an article by Dr.Robert Carr originally published in Industrial Archaeology News about London Bridge Station. That article achieved the highest number of views of any article this blog has published. Here is his next article from the current issue of the same publication.

A large London railway terminus is to be completely demolished to divert two railway tracks through the site. Known to relatively few people, the Brighton part of London Bridge Station appears doomed. This raises familiar issues concerning the different treatment of architecture and engineering as well as those concerning World Heritage Sites.
(see Industrial Archaeology News 162 pp 8&9

The London and South Coast Railway’s terminus at London Bridge station has long been something of a Cinderella station. The main problem is that relatively few people are familiar with it. Most passengers who use London Bridge only remember the through platforms to the north where conditions can be really dreadful. Redevelopment here is sorely needed. The London Bridge terminus lacks glamour in that the trains only go to relatively humble destinations in the South East. There never was a Golden Arrow or Night Ferry to Paris as at Victoria, or a Cornish Riviera Express to Penzance departing from Paddington.

It is not really clear why it is necessary to demolish the whole of the 1864-7 terminus roof just to re-route two railway lines through it. An entry at the northwest corner facilitated by a beam supported on columns should be within the bounds of present day structural engineering. About a hundred or so years ago this kind of rearrangement was undertaken at railway stations such as Rugby and Crewe and a good example can still be seen at Chester General Station. There may, however, be other reasons not readily apparent but these have not been made clear. One difference is that at London Bridge the station is not at ground level. The whole edifice is supported on substantial brick arches.

However when one considers that, under Nick Derbyshire in 1985-92, Liverpool Street station was rebuilt and extended in a matching Vicwardian style, what would be needed at London Bridge seems modest. City money was involved then and Southwark is relatively impoverished. But attitudes change. About forty- four years ago it was seriously intended to demolish St Pancras station and its listing by Lord Kennet was highly controversial. Many people then considered St Pancras a hideous Victorian monstrosity. At London Bridge we are now having a re-run of the nineteen sixties. The enlightenment of recent years may be coming to an end.

Rather than just separate covers for each island platform as presently proposed, a less unfortunate solution for the station might be a great overall roof, perhaps something like that by Cesar Pelli for the Docklands Light Railway at Canary Wharf. A splendid new roof, say something like the great arch Richard Rogers proposed for the combined King's Cross and St Pancras stations, would really put the London Bridge station on the map and could commensurate in scale with the Shard tower which is intended to be the nucleus for a cluster of tower blocks, as number one Canada Square was for the redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs.

However, objections from the United Nations' cultural organization UNESCO regarding sight lines for World Heritage Sites might prevent further high rise building in the London Bridge area going ahead. Last December a monitoring mission reported that the visual integrity of the Tower of London had been compromised by the building of the Shard tower, the tallest completed building in Europe at 1,016 feet high, and advised that further towers would compound the problem. Similar considerations also apply to redevelopment near Waterloo station which is likely to involve the demolition of Elizabeth Tower, Elizabeth House and some other buildings.

Once granted, World Heritage Site status is not guaranteed in perpetuity and can be removed if unsympathetic redevelopment takes place. In 2004 UNESCO declared the Elbe Valley at Dresden a World Heritage Site. A twelve-mile stretch of landscape, this included the city centre and baroque palaces, churches, opera house, museums. However, after first being placed on list of endangered sites in 2006, the historic area of the city lost its title in June 2009 for the wilful breach of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. This was due to the construction - the WaldschliiBchenbrucke - a conspicuous composite-steel four-lane motorway bridge across the valley less than two kilometres from the historic city centre.

Dresden is only the second World Heritage Site ever to be removed from the register. UNESCO made clear in 2006 that the bridge would destroy the cultural landscape if building went ahead. Legal moves by Dresden City Council to prevent the bridge from being constructed were unsuccessful.

The WaldschliiBchenbrucke is obtrusive - a massive bowstring-like construction which externally resembles concrete. Could they not have built a low rise bridge similar to some of the nearby Elbe crossings? The river here is not navigable by seagoing ships which need substantial headroom. This really does look like a wilful violation of the UNESCO convention.

All this may mean that in London the continued redevelopment of the London Bridge area would be inhibited and the station itself left in rather a dreadful mess following implementation of the low-rise low-cost scheme presently proposed for it. Surely this was just an interim proposal to cover the period until sufficient funds become available to build an appropriate new station? The simple wavy-roof platform covers presently envisaged are hardly great architecture and certainly not imposing. London Bridge station looks like being further demeaned. It should be borne in mind that curved glass panels are extremely difficult to keep clean. This maintenance problem was soon discovered at Waterloo Eurostar station, opened in November 1994.

Considering now the South Eastern Railway offices these have recently been cleaned so perhaps they will be retained after all. The controversy over the demolition of these offices has served as a red herring, deflecting public attention away from the proposed demolition of the terminus that is relatively hidden away and less well known to the public. The suspicious might suggest a conspiracy but it is all too easy to jump to incorrect conclusions. A crude interpretation in base human terms is generally insufficient to account for the chaotic way in which the world behaves. Such matters are complex and essentially incomprehensible. If something happens there are not necessarily a reason, let alone a human being to blame.

Returning to the issue of the ironwork of the terminus roof. there is now some suggestion that it might be put in store for future re-use. This is an attractive proposition. At least it might be possible to save the longitudinal crescent roof. If this were re-erected at a greater height than at present, the effect could be magnificent. However, at Greenwich the excellent wrought iron roof of the Neptune Hall of 1873-4, a former gymnasium designed by Sir Andrew Clarke RE, was put in store with the intention that it would soon be re-erected. After fifteen years nothing has happened and such things once dismantled and stored have a tendency to get lost, piece by piece, until reuse becomes impossible.

The situation at London Bridge station is fairly typical. The unlisted architecture of the 1897-1900 South Eastern Railway offices has overridden in importance the listed 1864-7 engineering of the railway terminus roof. Once more is it being demonstrated that the architect is more important than the engineer? It should be noted, however, that the architect who worked on the station with the engineer F D Banister was C H Driver (1832-1900). Driver was responsible for many considerable works and was probably the architect for Crossness pumping station, 1859-65. The main buildings there were listed grade I in 1980.

On a sunny day a visit to the LBSCR terminus in the quiet of the afternoon can be recommended. It is easy to appreciate the merits and shortcomings of the building then. Presently, this part of the station might be a little underused but the routing of twin Thameslink tracks through the northern part would rectify this and, if the terminus could ever be redeveloped a la Liverpool Street, a wonderful station worthy of a great new business quarter to rival Broadgate might be achieved.

Dr. Robert Carr.
Industrial Archaeology News. No. 163 Winter 2012. Pp 10-11.
Published Association for Industrial Archaeology

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