Saturday, 29 November 2008

Civilisation Crushed - A Tale of Two Buildings

When the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras opened, it was to almost universal praise. See for instance here for the Guardian's take or here for the BBC. As the latter puts it:
The brick and stonework was near-perfect. The soaring roof was "detailed delicately" ... [it is a] World-beating roof
And yes, it is a lovely building, and yes, the roof is incredible, a soaring arch of glass that lifts the spirit. There's only one problem. You can't actually see it most of the time because the passenger is sunk in a tunnel of shops. Rather than let people enjoy the extraordinary Victorian space, the architect has ensured that what you actually experience is just another retail environment. It is a fantastic building ruined by an excrudescence of high street squalor.

Stansted is exactly the same. The building is one of Norman Foster's finest. It could be a nice place to use, with clear views all the way from check in to the runways, again with a high roof that lets lots of light in. Instead it is a hell of closely packed shops and restaurants, Foster's vision having been completely subordinated to the need to get as many square feet of selling in as possible. BAA are not unique in their ability to ruin the traveller's day but they are one of the leading practitioners of this all-too-common art.

The Victorians realised something that seems to be lost today: that if you make grand public spaces that are a pleasure to use, then you add joy to peoples' days. If you respect the general populace and provide a context that is fundamentally civil, then many of them, at least, will be civilised. But if you treat them as consumers whose only duty is to spend, then they will behave however they want. Is it too much to hope that one day St. Pancras or Stansted will push the shops into the background and let the building do its job?

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