Plans to stick a skyscraper on top of one of our finest railway stations must be stopped
Architecturally, it seems to be the fate of the City of London to suffer. After the Great Fire of 1666, at least it had visionaries such as Wren to rebuild it: though I have often looked at St Paul’s and tried to imagine its great Gothic predecessor on that site. After the Blitz, the capital was less lucky: while most of the churches were properly restored, the Georgian and Victorian splendour of the Square Mile was lost.
Then came a wave of brutalism and barbarism so profound that people driven by profit, and with no aesthetic regard whatsoever, decided not just to build repulsive structures on bomb sites, but also to pull down some perfectly fine 19th-century buildings and stick charmless skyscrapers in their place. The most tragic loss, despite a fight by John Betjeman and others, was the Coal Exchange.
Betjeman also intervened in 1974 when, a century after it was built, Liverpool Street Station was threatened, with its fine Great Eastern Hotel of 1880-84 and its high cathedral-like roofs over the trainshed. Nikolaus Pevsner, in an unfortunate remark in the postwar period, blamed the station for causing the fine architecture of Essex to be unknown to outsiders, deterred by what he termed “the suicidal aspect” of the waiting room opposite platform 9. These days, the waiting room, and its aspect, have long gone; but what Pevsner called “the glory of the station”, the trainshed, remains.
The station was magnificently renovated in the late 1980s, incorporating the hotel and the trainsheds. The most successful work was the creation of what the Pevsner guide calls a “transept” over the concourse, continuing the style of the great roof. The ironwork is superb, and lancet windows were built into the west screen of the station, making the rebuild both sympathetic and authentic. Ruskin memorably said in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) that there was no point wasting money making railway stations handsome because those using them were “in a hurry and therefore miserable”, and would not notice. How wrong Liverpool Street suggests he was, as those of us who use the station regularly will testify.
However, its owners seem set on wrecking this excellent ensemble. Despite a huge protest from conservation bodies, Network Rail wants to remove the concourse roof and stick a cantilevered 21-storey, 350ft tower over the station that would overshadow the skylights of the trainsheds and cast the whole building into gloom. Network Rail, whose record in wrecking what remains of its historic estate really is awesome, made no attempt to consult with conservation groups when agreeing to this horrible scheme.
Others will think that, in an age of work-from-home, with much vacant office space and London’s skyline littered with vile high-rise buildings, another skyscraper is rather surplus to requirements. Also, there is a vast hole in the ground to the west of the station where the highly acclaimed Broadgate Centre, the epitome of 1980s commercial building, used to stand. Within 25 years, developers were pulling it down section by section until demands to list it were met with the rejoinder that there was too little left to list. The whole sorry tale is proof that some people have more money than sense.
For architecture to be not only pleasing to the eye but also enjoyable for the user is rare – yet Liverpool Street is both. It also retains some remarkable Victorian architecture that does not deserve to be buried beneath a pile of horrid concrete. The development, if allowed, would further wreck views of St Paul’s. It would also close the hotel to public use and cause part of it to be demolished, and compromise the Bishopsgate conservation area.
That would set an ugly precedent: if developers can be allowed to do this to a Grade II-listed building, what can’t they be allowed to do? We suffered enough from the carnage of our heritage in the Blitz and afterwards: this must be stopped. There is an online petition at change.org, and I hope you will follow me – and 9,000 others so far – in signing it.