What place does a 125-year old stone arch have within a 21st century development, wonders Paul Pensom…
As plans progress with development of London’s Euston station, I was reminded this week of the work of a campaign group with a very particular concern. This group is focussed on the restoration of the once famous ‘Euston arch’ to London's beleaguered mainline station. The arch, a 70ft tall gateway to the first capital-city terminus in the world, was destroyed along with the original building in 1962 by a cabal of self-interested parties who triumphed over the nascent conservation societies lined up against them. Despite assurances that it would be labelled and carefully dismantled, the 125 year old Doric propylaeum was smashed to pieces and sold to British Waterways, who used it to plug a hole in the River Lea. There the story would have ended, were it not for the fact that historian Dan Cruikshank identified the lost pieces and verified their condition was sound. When news arrived that the 1962 Euston Station was itself due for demolition a unique opportunity arose: resurrect the lost arch to take its place in front of the new 21st century building.
This is not such a fanciful idea as it sounds. Projects like I M Pei's glass Louvre pyramid have demonstrated the harmony that can be achieved through a sensitive juxtaposition of the the classical and the modern, and there is undeniably a mood in the air for experimentation. In fact the British, once famously hostile to change, are now at least as broad-minded about matters of art and architecture as their european cousins. The populace which once exhaled a unanimous harrumph at the Tate's purchase of Carl Andre's 'Pile of Bricks' and jeered Prince Charles's 'monstrous carbuncles' now crowd the Tate Modern, attend venues like Lord Foster's curvaceous Sage centre in Gateshead, or shop in buildings like the chainmail-clad Selfridges designed by Future Systems for Birmingham.
These landmark constructions, when taken alongside the success of the Saatchi Gallery and sell-out exhibitions such as Sensation and Apocalypse point to a deep and irrevocable change of attitudes. It seems that, eighty years after its gestation, the British public finally 'gets' modernism. The irony is that, just as this most egalitarian of movements finds its justification, it ceases to be of any relevance. 20th century modernism was a noble attempt to replace destructive rivalries with a new internationalism founded on rationality and democracy. Yet it's a perversion of precisely this motivating spirit which blights our towns and cities to this day — the dispiriting blank-faced canyons of 'High Street, Anytown' are a stark reminder of what happens when you jettison all vestiges of localism in favour of the international. What once represented thrusting municipal brio now symbolises the tawdry anonymity of emasculated industrial towns, where the sedentary attractions of mall and multiplex have replaced factory and furnace. In a world where the internet and environmental concerns have brought about a renewed sense of community, long subsumed regional characteristics are resurgent, making the modernist ethic suddenly appear distastefully monolithic.
If the central tenets of modernism are no longer relevant, what do we call the showpiece buildings transforming our post-industrial spaces? One is tempted to invoke the ghost of 'post modernism', but that would be to summon up a whole new set of arguments. In any case it doesn't matter. What is important is that the construction industry as a whole is shaken from its slumber. Housing in Britain is dominated by a backward-looking conservatism which scars our hinterlands with 'Tudorbethan' boxes, while commerce favours bastardized modernism purely because it is the cheapest and fastest way to build. What we desperately need is more control over our built environments, we need government that understands the street is as important a landscape as the valley, and most of all, we need to rediscover those most neglected of qualities: harmony and elegance.