Staying True to Design Principles

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This morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 carried a discussion on ‘railway station regeneration’ – specifically what would be positive improvements? As guests, the BBC brought together prominent English architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw (who designed London’s Waterloo International terminus) and architecture critic Jonathan Glancey, of the Guardian.

The 8-minute discussion compared the dismally grey and concrete 1960s London Euston station to the red brick and glass St Pancras International, opened in 2007. Much of the talk centred around the marvellous first impression of the St Pancras roof, thought to inspire passengers as they arrived from the Continent. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8075000/8075060.stm)

True enough – St Pancras is an impressive re-vamp of a Grade I listed building. Yet what these two luminaries forgot to discuss was what the first priority for rebuilding a station should be – namely to design a better passenger experience.

Architects may drool over the engineering features of the roof, but what everyday passengers want is less overcrowding on concourses and platforms, help with dealing with train delays and plentiful, clean toilets. These are the practical design features that enrich day-to-day use, but sadly they don’t win design awards.

St Pancras station may be shiny-new and stylish, but commuters care more that you can’t get any mobile phone signal on the platforms hidden deep in the domestic terminal. The station is hopelessly designed to deal with passenger flow, with too few escalators, chaotic interchanges between mainline and tube intersections, and (despite its recent design) still desperately inadequate for use by the disabled.

In the course of my profession, I’ve spent many hours working with rail passenger groups and documenting their needs. Never once has the issue of ‘roof design’ been mentioned !

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that all design of public spaces should be strictly utilitarian. On the contrary – stylish and striking architecture adds value to many different groups, be they visitors, users or the local community.

But staying true to classic design principles also include an understanding of what actually works well. If it does this, it will be loved, and if it doesn’t, it will disappoint.

PS: the ultimate measure of a successful railway station is the test of time. Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s Waterloo International terminus took 5 years to build, cost £135m and lasted just 13 years. It currently stands derelict, mothballed and – dare I say it – looking rather out-of-date…..

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