In a year when the eyes of the world will be turning towards Britain, firstly for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and then the Olympic and Paralympic Games, civic buildings are one feature that can highlight the true character of a nation.
As a civic building, King’s Cross station has many roles to perform. The transformation of the station, and of the neighbouring St Pancras station, represent a return to an almost Victorian era approach to civic architecture: the idea of civic buildings as totems of a shared national outlook, rather than just functional civic objects.
There is no doubt in my mind that the restoration and transformation of King’s Cross station will be a success. But on what basis should we judge this success? The sensitive renovation and modernization of the existing buildings, and the new iconic diagrid shell roof over the Western Concourse, are an architectural and placemaking triumph.
Technically, and aesthetically, the project is going to deliver. But there is also another, philosophical measure by which we should judge the success of King’s Cross station in its new form. Shouldn’t its impact be seen through the lens of productivity and innovation? Might we consider judging the success of the project by the ways in which it inspires its users to carry into their own lives the station’s quality, its detailing, its ingenuity and elegance?
In the nineteenth century, great buildings and engineering projects by architects Joseph Paxton, Augustus Pugin, Alexander Thomson, Charles Barry and Lewis Cubitt – the designer of King’s Cross – assisted the reach and influence of Britain at that time. It was a national confidence that fed on, and created innovation after innovation — allowing the likes of the engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson, and the scientist inventors Joseph Swan, Alexander Parkes and Charles Wheatstone, to shape history.
Little more than a century later, projects such as the renovation of King’s Cross station will have a similar transformative effect. At a time when the government is looking to the creative sector to spur the growth of new industries, the station declares to everybody who uses it that British design can achieve great things. Designed and delivered with flair, care, attention to detail and sheer quality, this project embodies a spirit that goes far beyond that dry phrase, ‘the built environment’.
Projects such as King’s Cross station define this as a creative island, inspiring young minds to become the next generation of designers and innovators. And my belief is that, with some 55 million people passing through the station each year, it will inspire many of its users to create, to build, and to challenge convention usefully and successfully.
The legacy of King’s Cross station and other such inspiring projects should be felt for generations. I believe it will be.