Sunday, November 17, 2013
King's Cross, London
A friend recently lent me a bound volume of copies of the Illustrated London News from 1852. What had struck my friend about this volume was the extraordinary amount of space devoted to the Duke of Wellington, who died on 14 September 1852. This coverage is indeed remarkable, but amongst the various special supplements on Wellington's life, the pages of reminiscences, and the exhaustive illustrated account of the Duke's funeral, are scattered a few items of news about London's buildings.
One that I thought was particularly timely is headed 'Great Northern Railway' and records that 'The buildings for the passenger traffic of this railway at King's Cross are fast approaching completion.' The article dwells at some length on the station front, with its two imposing arches, each of a span of 'no less than 71 feet', marking the ends of the arrival and departure platforms, and its clock, brought here after being displayed at the Great Exhibition. The piece also quotes the analysis of the facade in The Builder, which notices how 'great plainness prevails; the architect depends wholly for effect on the largeness of some of the features, the fitness of the structure for its purpose, and a characteristic expression of the purpose.'
In 1852, as the image in the Illustrated London News shows, there was plenty of space in front of Lewis Cubitt's facade, affording room for all the Victorian bustle that surrounded such a place – carriages, wagons, omnibi, sandwichmen, and the pedestrian host.
By the last decades of the last century, however, our eyes were distracted from the size, plainness, and purposefulness of this frontage by the sorry accumulation of additional buildings that had been piled in front. Now, as part of the restoration of King's Cross station, these have been swept away and, although parts of the square in front of the building are still boarded up, people can bustle and the amazing facade may be seen again. True, the architects of the restoration and upgrade have provided a discreet canopy that cuts through the small lower entrance arches. But this seems a small price to pay for the clearing up of the frontage and the chance to see clearly the two magnificent arches once again.