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Eyesore or gem: St Pancras
The Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station

Five controversial buildings - should they stay or go?

The maxim of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is no more true than in people's estimations of modern buildings. To mark Architecture Week, the Magazine has taken some of Britain's most controversial buildings to task. But now we look back in the archive at the 1960s battle to save St Pancras station.

The four buildings we have dealt with so far: Gateshead car park, Slough's Brunel roundabout, Northampton Greyfriars bus station, London's Milton Court have all been post-war constructions.

While the enemies see an eyesore in need of imminent demolition, the supporters want time, time in order that people's perspective on Brutalism and raw concrete might change. The enemies, however, believe no amount of time will see the public fall in love with the severe architecture of the 1960s and 1970s.

St Pancras now

But before the battle for Britain's Brutalist past, there were other battles over architecture that have shaped our current attitudes to our past.

One of the most notable of these was over the fate of perhaps the greatest Victorian train station, St Pancras in London. Looming over the busy Euston Road like a Gothic castle, one might laugh at the thought this Grade I-listed structure might ever have faced the axe.

But the sceptic should travel the short distance to nearby Euston to witness the magnificence of that station. Or not, as the 4,500-ton stone Doric Arch that once greeted rail travellers, was demolished in 1962, along with the rest of the station.

After an 800m refurbishment, its cousin at St Pancras will, later this year, take the Eurostar in the massive shed designed by William Barlow, while the old Midland Grand Hotel, which sits atop the concourse and was designed by George Gilbert Scott, will soon again be a hotel and apartment block.

The now-departed Euston Arch (Picture: Museum of London)
Euston Arch was flattened in the name of progress (Picture: Museum of London)

But in the 1960s the railway powers-that-be had other ideas, with the demolition of the whole complex, or of just the hotel, very much on the cards.

The battle to save it - led by poet Sir John Betjeman - has now formed the basis for a play by Richard Shannon, staged near St Pancras, entitled All Our Hellos and All Of Our Goodbyes.

Below, in a letter to a newspaper from 1966, former civil servant and businessman Sir Edward Playfair argues that St Pancras should succumb to the wrecking ball. A variety of other luminaries go on to argue that demolition is wrong.


Can space be found for one who positively loathes the building? My reason for asking it is that (morally at least) the conservationists have it all their own way.

They are the experts and the men of feeling; those who do not share their views (as is implied) are ignorant followers of an obsolete fashion. In fact, of course, his reaction and mine are both subjective, though his is much better informed.

The Midland Grand Hotel/St Pancras station
The Gothic towers did not appeal to some

St Pancras gives a lift to his spirit; mine droops at its sight and I have never passed it without hoping that it would soon be demolished.

As a critic, I do not count against your correspondent; as voters, ratepayers, passers-by and railway-travellers, we are equal.

Haters of St Pancras should register their feelings as emphatically as its lovers do.

Not enough is said about the virtues of demolition. The enemies of too much preservation should band together and make their case publicly. The words "too much" are essential; over most of the field destructionists and preservationists would agree, but in marginal cases rational policy would be more likely to emerge from a dialogue between the two than from the present tiger-and-shark battle of preservationists and developers.

The station in 1868
The train shed was the widest single-span structure in the world

Anyway, it would be nice to see an intellectually respectable case made against the accepted view (fortunately countered by economic necessity) which is all for the national junkyard, the museum with far too many walls, plans distorted to accommodate the fashionable, the obsolete and the unusable, the restrictions placed on today's architects in favour of the dead.

Anyway, what fun it would be. Think of our delenda list, starting with Elizabethan vulgarities (or further back if you wish) and rising to a climax in modern times, with St Pancras at its head, advancing through Waterhouse towards that arch-delendum the Ministry of Defence.

It is a pity that we destructionists are so passive; we need an anti-Betjeman to lead us.


Daily Telegraph: "The extreme picturesqueness and fantasy of Scott's designs are firmly controlled by his strength of line and the asymmetrical balance of the parts. The roof line is broken by a forest of chimney stacks, whole spires and spirelets pierce the sky with finials and crestings of wrought iron and copper - all combining to produce a skyline of wonder and delight..."

Victorian Society 1966 report: "Both Scott's hotel and Barlow's train shed at St Pancras are indispensable masterpieces. In their romantic skyline, technical mastery and internal splendour they express the finest qualities of the greatest period of British history and imperatively require preservation."

Eric de Mare in the Times: "Whatever one may feel about St Pancras as a work of art, no one can deny that its presence is powerful, not least as a grand symbol of what, for all its faults, was one of the greatest periods in this island's history. As a callow architectural student I despised all Victorian architecture. I can now see those many virtues it contains which are so signally lacking in the impersonal, faceless, joyless, minimal, rent-raising erections of today - not least at St Pancras."

St Pancras being built

Prof Nikolaus Pevsner: "The building by Sir George Gilbert Scott is, side by side with the Foreign Office, his best secular building. The train-shed by Barlow has lost nothing of its elegance and sweep through the one hundred years since it was designed. From the point of view of architecture and design neither can be spared."

Sir John Summerson in the Illustrated London News: "It is impossible not to admire Scott's dexterity. This is not copy-book stuff; Scott really had Gothic in his head. Motifs of the best and purest kind sprang to his aid at every juncture. He was never at a loss for a profile or the ornament for a spandrel. No man now living could put on a performance like this."

Below is a selection of your comments.

St. Pancras and the Midland are one of my favourite buildings in london. I pass them every day on my way to work and I can never stop myself from looking up at it. It is going to make a fantastic terminal for the eurostar, much more spectacular than Waterloo. What I want to know is what will become of the neighbouring Great Northern Hotel?
Kathryn McMahon, London

I believe what this and all previous articles in this series have shown is how at odds architects and the public are, and perhaps always have been. Looking at these 'Brutalist' buildings I do not believe it was lack of innovation that sealed their doom in the eyes of the public, many of these buildings were (and some still are) innovative. However I do believe that it is the lack of character which has brought their demise. The intricate detailing of Victorian buildings (and anything prior to that) has saved them from the wrecker's ball. Personally I believe we'll be having this discussion again in about 40 years time regarding all these almost identical modern glass structures - - perhaps there in lies the problem, they are all the same.
Daniel Trimm, Birmingham, United Kingdom

I find it amusing that 'back then' in the 60s and 70s, people were constantly looking to the future, building modern and futuristic buildings while trying to knock down the buildings that they saw as old and historical. Now we have swapped over, trying to restore and conserve the older buildings while knocking down the futuristic buildings of the 60s and 70s. Maybe in the future, people will compare both and conserve them equally, but probably try and demolish the buildings going up today.
Heather, Wolverhampton

St Pancras is the most romantic station in London, I hope it is always standing as it is a beautiful example of Victorian gothic.
Katolina, London

I commute through St Pancras every day, and I have mixed feelings about the place. The hotel (which most people think is the station) is beautiful, especially compared with the horrid buildings around it. The station itself isn't anything special, but I'd still keep it, on the grounds that it's probably a lot better than anything else that might be proposed. For example, the new extension at the back is badly laid out, badly designed and needs to be pulled down already! We need less of that!
Nic Brough, London

Sir Edward's argument for demolition of St Pancras appears to amount to "I don't like the look of it, neither do lots of others, not enough stuff gets demolished, oh go on, please!" Not exactly convincing. I have used St Pancras more several years now, and the look of it as the conversion to St Pancras International is almost completed is, in my opinion, superb. The architects have managed to combine a marvellous modern platform for the use of Midland Mainline customers with the fabulous design of the main shed for the use of the Eurostar platforms. I think it is one of London's best sites to see.
Sam Chew, Loughborough, UK

Edward Playfair is just a fashion junky. It's STYLE which counts! It's TASTE which deserves admiration, conservation, and emulation. That's why the brutalist postwar horrors (except perhaps prisons, which should be brutalist horrors) deserve nothing more.
Mike, Hayes

Anyone supporting demolishing St Pancras should take a look at Euston or Birmingham New Street, the result of progress...
Paul, Coventry, UK

When St Pancras International staff wave the first Eurostars from London to Paris from their station on the morning of 14 November 2007 it will be like when it first opened in the early morning of 1 October 1868, at this time it was the wonder of the age. In 2007 it will be the wonder of the world.
Alastair Lansley, London England

I'm struck by how modern the stupendous arch of the train shed looks. It's amazing. Thank goodness it survived.
John, Edinburgh, UK

I'd like to see the houses these modern architects live in; I'll bet they all live in beautiful Georgian terraces in Bath or somewhere similar... Given the sheer popularity of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture in this country, particularly when it comes to houses, why don't modern architects come up with designs with similar appeal, rather than the little square boxes that get built today?
Rob, London UK

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