Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880





The Dark Arches of Leeds

3 12 2011

1. One of the tunnels carrying the River Aire in Leeds' Dark Arches

Today, the entrance to Leeds’ central railway station is a rather banal building dating from the late 1960s. This replaced another station, dating from 1864 to 1866, which, in turn, was a ‘new’ station superseding a jumble of earlier buildings dating from the 1840s.  The enormous scale of the railway station today is best appreciated from below, in its aptly-named ‘Dark Arches’ – a line of immense red-brick groined vaults covering an access tunnel built beneath the station in the mid-1860s and still forming most of its substructure today (2). When it was built, this subterranean world was one of the largest man-made underground spaces in Britain, created by the engineers T. E Harrison and Robert Hodgson and using over 18 million bricks. The space is dominated by the River Aire – Leeds’ principal waterway – which crosses the west end of the Dark Arches in four immense tunnels spanned by a cast-iron bridge (1 & 3). Here, the tunnels carry the fast-moving river underneath the station where it then joins the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Granary Wharf. Turbulent and unruly, its sounds and smells animate the atmospheric gloom of the tunnels.

2. The Dark Arches from Neville Street to Granary Wharf

3. Walkway in one of the tunnels carrying the River Aire

Lining the last tunnel is a narrow walkway, a tantalising aid for would-be explorers but sealed off by a gate and coils of threatening barbed wire (3). Other brick openings suggest more secret worlds hidden in the darkness beyond, their unknown extent emphasised by gigantic brick arches glimpsed among the shadows and receding into pitch black (4). While gleaming, transparent glass office blocks rise up from Leeds’s nineteenth-century heart, the Dark Arches remind us of the city’s foundation – namely, its murky, industrial past. Indeed, in one of the arches are reproductions of Victorian photographs of the area, stained black with soot and smoke and redolent with a sense of stygian gloom.

4. Receding brick arches in the shadows

5. A place of safety for some...

The Dark Arches used to contain a run-down shopping centre, designed to cleanse this space of its dark associations in the early 1990s, but one that failed to entice enough people to shop, eat and enjoy themselves underground. As with many leftover Victorian subterranean spaces, the symbolic power and industrial origins of the Dark Arches remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification. Today, some of the arches facing Granary Wharf have been converted into restaurants, while the majority are now filled with parked cars – a common, acceptable use of underground space that is probably due to us feeling that our cars (if not ourselves) are safer in these sealed-off worlds (5). In between the cars, a few people use the arches as a convenient thoroughfare; others, for more nefarious activities. As early as 1892, Leeds’s chief of police was citing the Dark Arches as a centre of idling, prostitution and mugging; while in 2007, the British Transport Police uncovered a cannabis factory hidden in its recesses. It’s this twin sense of safety and danger that continues to haunt all underground spaces, particularly Victorian ones, and which prevents them from ever being fully controlled by the powers in the world above.





Architecture and history: London Bridge station

17 06 2011

1. The Shard under construction in June 2011

In its slow progress upwards, London’s Shard (1) is already Britain’s most high-profile skyscraper and, when finished, will be – at 1,017 feet – the tallest building in Europe. According to its architect, Renzo Piano, part of the inspiration for the design came from the railway tracks adjacent to the site of the new building, which centre on London Bridge station, one of London’s eighteen railway termini, and constructed mainly in the mid-1860s out of an existing jumble of buildings of several competing railway companies (2). At the present time, Network Rail are planning to remodel the entire station – an attempt to transform a notoriously cramped, messy site characterised by spatial confusion into a building that reflects the character of its new spectacular neighbour.

2. London Bridge Station from the south

The contrast between the two buildings – Shard and London Bridge Station – is startling. The Shard is the epitome of spectacular high-tech modernity in architecture, a spire entirely clad in glass panels that will create a dazzling landmark visible for miles around; while London Bridge station is Victorian bric-a-brac architecture, its bits and pieces including a brick train-shed wall fronting St Thomas Street pierced with monumental arches, and an enormous viaduct stretching for nearly a mile southwards, slicing the land in half and supported on a repeating series of  triple polychrome arches (3), pierced by tunnels that link Tooley and St Thomas’s Street (4). Today, most of the arches are in an advanced state of decay, their polychrome facades chipped and faded, the cornices awry and sunken from decades of neglect (5).

3. London Bridge viaduct from St Thomas Street in 2004

Network Rail’s plan to sweep away much of this Victorian heritage in its new design for the station has encountered opposition, mainly from local residents, channelled through the Bermondsey Village Action Group (BVAG). As Southwark Council plan to line St Thomas Street with new high-rise office buildings, the BVAG are formulating an alternative ‘heritage-based’ approach that seeks to conserve and repair the existing Victorian buildings. The central question raised by these plans is one of urban image: on the one hand, the Shard proclaims a new image for the city, centred on the idea of architecture as talismanic presence, inspiring a new spirit of urban optimism that looks forward and not to history; on the other, London Bridge station asks us to appreciate urban space shaped by the chaotic and conflicting demands of both city life and of its history, its decay prompts thoughts on what exactly should be valued in the built environment. For some, the sense of decay and mess around London Bridge station is a positive attribute in itself – a liberating alternative to the clean surfaces and ordered spaces of an increasingly dominant high-tech urbanism.

4. Tunnel under the viaduct between Tooley and St Thomas St

5. Decaying arch near Crucifix Lane

What would continue to make this site really interesting is a willingness to engage with multiple ways of imagining urban space, its future as well as its past. Despite the fears of many, the presence of the Shard may not necessarily overwhelm the long and complex history of the site; at the moment at least it serves to highlight the contradictions and juxtapositions that make big cities such fascinating places to be. Whether or not that continues to be the case depends on how much we allow our urban spaces to be shaped only by one seemingly overpowering image and not by the many that have given them their history.








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