It is one of John McAslan + Partners (JMP)’s biggest British projects. But the £547 million ($886 million), multiphase overhaul of London’s King’s Cross rail terminal came with problems on a matching scale. Four years ago, when construction began on the project’s centerpiece—an outsized concourse for departing passengers—time was already tight. The 160-year-old King’s Cross station is a Grade I–listed historic building, and any plans required lengthy consultation. What’s more, no work could begin until the roof slab was in place for a new ticket hall at the London Underground station below, and rail authorities allowed no trains to be canceled during construction.
Yet the deadline was fixed: The showcase concourse had to be ready in time for this summer’s Olympic Games. Passenger numbers at King’s Cross—already one of the city’s busiest stations—are expected to rise steeply as people take advantage of the new Javelin high-speed train to the games site, which will leave from the neighboring St. Pancras terminal. (St. Pancras shares the same Underground stop with King’s Cross.)
These days, London-based JMP’s chairman John McAslan, Intl. Assoc. AIA, can look back with relief: After 15 years of planning, the Western Concourse opened in March, on time and to huge acclaim. The 47 million people who pass through King’s Cross each year—a number that is projected to increase by another 10 million by 2020—can now move easily through a 7,500-square-meter (80,730-square-foot) covered concourse that more than triples the size of the station’s previous forecourt and ticket hall. In the end, “the constraints became opportunities,” McAslan says. “But it was like an examination question where the answers had to be exactly tailored to all the conditions.”
Central to JMP’s design for the Western Concourse is the shell-like diagrid roof of glass, steel, and aluminum that rises 20 meters (66 feet) above the ground at its highest point. Engineered by Arup, the vast canopy splays out from a great steel funnel located a few feet from the historic station’s western façade. (Yet another constraint was that no additional load could be placed on the station wall itself.) Intersecting branches of steel spread downward, spanning out in a 74-meter (243-foot) radius from that central point. A ring of 16 supporting columns at the outer edge takes the load. With no supporting columns in between, the Western Concourse is now the largest single-span structure in Europe.
Outside, the semicircle of the concourse deliberately mimics (and, in fact, fills) the curve of the nearby Great Northern Hotel. Completed two years after the original King’s Cross station, the hotel was also designed by the same architect, Lewis Cubitt. The geometry repeats again inside the concourse, where a mezzanine level—supported by decorative iron brackets and covered with 5 million gleaming, white ceramic tiles, coated to repel dirt—follows a similar sinuous line. To meet the design brief from the station’s owner, Network Rail, the structure provides space for a range of shops and cafés that overlook the ground-floor plaza.
Inspiration for the roof’s airy glass-and-steel design came partly from the 19th century. “I have always liked the great Victorian glasshouses as at Kew Gardens,” says McAslan, who’s also a keen admirer of Grand Central Terminal in New York. But other influences, he says, included the soaring airports designed by Eero Saarinen—Dulles International in Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy International in New York. As at an airport, the departure and arrival areas of King’s Cross are now separate, and McAslan hopes that the elegance of the concourse will capture something of the glamour of air travel. (“Why should air passengers always be treated so well and rail passengers so shabbily?,” he wonders.)
Happily, this reflects the client’s own thinking. Network Rail wanted a building that was more than merely functional. “This wasn’t just about providing more space,” says Ian Fry, the company’s programme director for the Western Concourse. “We wanted something that would give passengers an uplifting experience at the start of their journey.”
ToolBox: The Master Plan
The facelift for King’s Cross station goes far beyond the building of the new Western Concourse. John McAslan + Partners have been working on the project since 1998, and then developed a master plan in 2005 to overhaul the entire complex. In time, the station will serve as a gateway to one of London’s largest ongoing regeneration projects: King’s Cross Central, a 67-acre patch of postindustrial wasteland barely a mile from the West End, where (after planning debates that stretch back to the late 1980s) work is finally under way.
Much of the interior of King’s Cross is already transformed. A 65-meter (213-foot) footbridge runs across the station’s main train shed at mezzanine level, allowing passengers easier access to any of the nine platforms below. To keep the platforms clear for passengers, old below-grade tunnels have been cleared to create a passage to carry goods directly to trains. (Harry Potter fans can take heart. Despite the changes, a sign on the wall showing the site of the so-called Platform 9 3/4, used by the Hogwarts Express, has been preserved.)
Overhead, the shed’s double-barrel-vaulted glass ceiling is being reglazed (work should finish later this summer) and will be fitted with 1,400 photovoltaic panels that will top-up the station’s electricity supply. Steelwork has been repainted in appropriate colors, and refurbishments to the office block in the station’s Eastern Range—which houses railway staff—were completed in 2009.
The only major element in JMP’s master plan that’s still to begin is the demolition of the existing ticket hall—a low, unloved structure that was tacked onto the front of King’s Cross station in the 1970s. This currently mars the view of the two elegant yellow-brick arches of the station’s original Victorian façade. After the Olympic Games, it will be replaced by an open plaza, slated to open next year.
The station’s new look fits neatly into the grand scheme for the redevelopment of the wedge of land to the north of the station, bordered by railway lines and bisected by canals, that—in the heyday of the railways—was home to a cluster of freight yards and warehouses.
A separate master plan, designed by the London-based firms Allies and Morrison and Porphyrios Associates, will see the construction of 8 million square feet of mixed-use development on the 67-acre site—including 2,000 homes, 23 new or refurbished office blocks, and a bevy of shops and restaurants. And King’s Cross—already a transport hub served by six Underground lines—will provide vital access.