UNDER THE ARCHES #1: EUSTON APPROACH  -  Thursday August 27th, 2009

The Arch in the late 50′s.

“The Euston Arch was a powerful symbol of the optimistic spirit of the Victorian railway. Its demolition in the 1960′s confirmed that blandness and lack of imagination had replaced the heroic vision of the past. Since then, the enormous popularity of the restored St. Pancras, soon to be followed by a restored King’s Cross, has shown that celebration of the past and potential for the future are not mutually exclusive. The restoration of the Euston Arch would restore to London’s oldest main line terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours.”

Last year I was having a beer with a Portuguese architect in Paris and we were talking over why English has become the global lingua franca. ‘It can all be traced back to World War Two’, I told him pompously, ‘a war whose end was largely presided over by Americans.’ He shrugged. As far as he was concerned it really started with the greatest technological invention of the 19th century– one that was pioneered and disseminated by Britain: the railways.

In trying to recapture some of the zeitgeist of that era I could only compare it with what I knew: flight. Surely the pleasure and excitement of flying must have been akin to the experience of travelling by train. Relatively speaking, the people found themselves effortlessly propelled fantastic distances at terrific speeds – and the change in thinking about the landscape and the world (and especially their connection to other people) must have been very similar. Are the railways responsible for raising an awareness of national unity– just as air travel impacted on the development of the global village? Is there a link to be drawn between the railways and the patriotism of the First War?

But then I thought about it further and I realised it wasn’t at all the same. For this one reason: air travel is neither ceremonial nor ceremonious. At no point do we glorify the ritual of flight. It is said that airports are the gateways to the new metropolises. If this is the case they’re pretty dire. One could argue that the mode of transport itself – the aeroplane – is responsible for this, in that it does not lend itself to being close to the centre of a city (sound and pollution). But I’m not convinced. Every aspect of flying is designed to desensitise the traveller. The sterility. The boredom. The waiting. The minuscule window, crap food, reticulated air. In short, an activity cramped and uncouth.

By comparison, the drama and ritual of arrival at London’s first railway terminus seems remarkable. The sheer scale of the arch in comparison with its context, and the obvious reference to the temples of ancient Greece, must have been quite impressive. Initially (see below) the approach was open from various sides – but over time (see video) the densification of the city suggested a frontal approach with the concealment of the building up until the last moment.

For all the grandeur of Foster’s Beijing Airport, it remains without a clear approach. It is all facade, yet there is no front – therefore there can be no ritual of arrival. I am interested less by the treatment of airports as necessary bi-products of the desire to travel, and more as legitimate destinations in themselves (and I do not mean simply as sterile temples to consumption).

While I don’t agree with the date (the 60′s in Britain, for example, produced some of the greatest Utopic projects of the century), I do agree with Palin that “blandness and lack of imagination [have] replaced the heroic vision[s] of the past”. A bold idea can be the starting point of a conversation that leads to social change – while a beige idea begets only itself ad infinitum.

Euston station, probably around 1840.
A video showing the approach to Euston Arch. I managed to track down the author eventually.

Euston Arch during construction in 1837 – notice how closely it resembles the current state of the Propylaea.

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