Architecture and history: London Bridge station

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.

8 thoughts on “Architecture and history: London Bridge station

  1. So glad they kept & restored some of the beautiful Victorian structure! The Shard’s nice enough for what it is, a 1 off shiny tower of buisness ambition, but the newer buildings around arn’t disappointing; too often modern architecture depressing, bland, crushing; City life is harsh enough without the buildings joining in! Victorians believed people had souls to ‘edify’ but now money is the main god, architects have lost the vision & skills for the beauty that kept it human for those living amongst it. It has to tick the function box – but if that’s all, along with back-slapping of architect ego way removed from reality, our city loses a bit more of it’s vitality, we get helplessly fobbed off with mingin’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. *My comment should read ‘the newer buildings around ARE disappointing’, tho’ I guess they could be worse! I agree that buildings like the Shard, & the ‘Gherkin’ arn’t necessarily a problem to the older buildings, somehow they can sit alongside OK, as shapely shiny 1 offs in the sky; it’s more the modern buildings at ground level that are.. ugly, jarring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this. I think it’s the lack of history embodied in the contemporary buildings that I find difficult. They’re unreadable in those terms and will be in the future too.


  3. Hi very interesting, but it was always the plan to use the sale of land to build the Shard to part fund the redevelopment of the station. This has led to an integration with the Shard, best seen from above with its rivers of glass, while preserving a lot of the polychrome exterior. The whole lot intersected by the new concourse ploughing through what was Stainer Street. Unfortunately only thinly disguising modern and featureless steel and concrete architecture. Loved seeing the old pictures. Would be great to have the ‘now’ version ing side


    • Thanks Andrew. You’re right – I need to go back and take some more shots. The new station has won awards and it’s certainly a much better travelling experience now. But it’s obliterated the unique atmosphere of the place.


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