Rejoice! Rejoice! Fifty-four years after its destruction, Euston Arch has returned to Euston. Well, after a fashion. Four blocks from this lost portico, salvaged from a murky river bed in east London, have been deposited outside the station by Euston Arch Trust, a heroic pressure group that is campaigning to rebuild this much-lamented landmark. It’s only a tiny fragment of the original, but I can’t begin to tell you how much this small pile of rubble cheered me up. Wouldn’t it be terrific fun to reconstruct this splendid monument? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring old buildings such as Euston Arch back to life?
Even by the philistine standards of the Sixties, the demolition of Euston Arch was a particularly crass and shameful episode. Erected at the entrance to the world’s first metropolitan train terminus, this huge propylaeum was a fitting tribute to the golden age of rail. Its gratuitous removal was equally symbolic. When it was constructed, in 1837, Britain led the world in train travel. When it was torn down, in 1961, we’d long since fallen far behind. Rebuilding it would reconnect our railways with their illustrious history. It would show we’re no longer willing to endure the architectural aberrations of our recent past.
The alibi for this act of vandalism was the redevelopment of Euston station — resulting in the dismal structure we know and loathe today. Actually, the arch could easily have been relocated, but smashing it to pieces was much cheaper. John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner both begged Harold Macmillan not to sanction this iconoclasm. Woodrow Wyatt tabled a motion in the House of Commons. Their heartfelt pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite his olde-worlde public image, Supermac was infatuated with modernism. ‘An obsession with such buildings will drain our national vitality,’ he opined, perversely. Why are so many Conservative politicians so utterly unwilling to conserve?
The demolition contractor used some of the stones to build his new home in Bromley, called Paradise Villa — an address straight of Betjeman’s Metro-Land — but most of it was used to fill a hole in the Prescott Channel (a tributary of the River Lea). The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank dredged up a bit of it for his sterling TV series One Foot in the Past, and in 2009 British Waterways rescued another 29 gritstone blocks while building a new lock for the Olympic Park. Cruickshank reckons more than half the original masonry has survived. The remainder could easily be sourced from the same Yorkshire quarry. The entire enterprise would cost only £10 million, small change compared with HS2.
Trendy modern architects will sneer at this sentimental desire to turn back the clock, but it was trendy modern architects who tore down Euston Arch to make way for London’s most miserable train station. Nostalgia is a noble impulse (the Renaissance was a nostalgic movement) and anyway, there are plenty of progressive precedents for this sort of thing. The Germans are reconstructing many of the iconic buildings they lost during the second world war (the imperial palaces in Berlin and Potsdam are just two examples) and this is a nation for which the modernist mantras of the Bauhaus reign supreme. The results are uplifting and inspiring. When I first went to Dresden 20 years ago, its baroque Frauenkirche was a heap of rubble. When I returned there ten years later, it had been completely rebuilt. This reconstructed church has become the focal point for the regeneration of an entire city. By comparison, a compact project such as Euston Arch looks like a sideshow.
A rebuilt Euston Arch would herald a renaissance of traditional British architecture. There are countless other iconic buildings that could be raised from the dead. Everyone will have their own favourite, but I’d nominate the Chiswick Empire, an ornate variety theatre on Turnham Green, built by the doyen of music-hall architects Frank Matcham — obliterated, like so many others, to make way for a bleak tower block. Sure, such a movement would be reactionary, but then so is much of the world’s great architecture: Neo-Gothic, neoclassical, Romanesque....
As Cruickshank said, rebuilding Euston Arch would constitute ‘the righting of a great architectural wrong’. Inspired by the Acropolis, like all the best buildings it stands for something far greater than itself. As usual, the trainspotter’s poet laureate John Betjeman put it best:
The first trunk railway of the world we hail
London is linked to Birmingham by rail
Euston’s Great Portico was built to be
The gateway into Midland industry.
Donate a few quid to the Euston Arch Trust and who knows? Maybe it could be again.
Let me immediately swing my wrecker’s ball into the flimsy structure of balanced debate. Of course, it was crass to demolish Euston Arch in the first place. Creative reuse, ironic recontextualising and urban layering would have been a far better idea. But to clamour for its reinstatement 50 years on is dispiriting, lazy and defeatist.
There is a lot of hoarse special pleading from the restoration lobby with its appeal to ‘traditional’ British architecture. But Philip Hardwick’s architectural style was not traditional at all. It was a passing fad. The Greek Revival came in only a few years before with the popularity of The Antiquities of Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, the Dan Cruickshanks of their day. And then it was gone. It was the same sort of slavish nod to continental fashion as Seifert’s 1970s blocks at Euston station were to the German Bauhaus.
William Cook talks of the ‘philistine standards of the Sixties’. Is this the same Sixties that produced the greatest ever up-tick in popular culture and turned London from a depressed, airless, post-colonial backwater into the outstanding cosmopolitan world city it is today? And any invocation of ‘iconic’ in any argument is a signal passed at danger, suggesting out-of-control thought processes. It’s not for me, you or him to declare anything ‘iconic’. Only history will decide.
Then there is the process of ‘rebuilding’: well, if it involves dredging a canal for architectural debris, rebuilding is, in terms of civic sense, as pitiable and futile as injecting monkey glands into grizzled carcasses in pursuit of eternal youth. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the restoration lobby. Is nostalgia a noble impulse? Not really. Nostalgia was originally identified as a psychosis, a mental aberration describing a state of mind that could find delight only in the past.
Between ‘nostalgic’ and ‘reactionary’ there is a space so fine that nothing is visible in it. Do we want more reactionary architecture? Personally, no. The locus classicus of reactionary architecture is the Prince of Wales’s Poundbury, as lifeless an architectural cadaver as you could hope not to find. Which image brings us to the notion of Euston Arch being ‘raised from the dead’.
Surely, notions of grave-robbing, exhumation, sorcery, ancestor-worship and zombie culture are unwholesome? In any case, even without necrological imagery, railway stations are emotional places with their sequence of cheerful arrivals and mournful departures. I’d prefer a new Euston to be optimistic and life-enhancing rather than the architectural equivalent of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Anyway, am I really alone in seeing a certain sort of beauty in this image of well-intentioned, well-dressed travellers wandering the sunny piazza in a euphoria of Macmillan-era futurism? This vision is as distant to us now as pretty Queen Anne was to Hardwick’s muscular Doric. One day, I am certain, archaeologists will want to rescue the Sixties Euston from Essex landfill. The rules of taste follow a sine wave: what is approved one moment is disavowed the next. As Mr Pickwick said, bewildered by the traffic in the new Trafalgar Square, ‘I am ruminating on the strange mutability of human affairs.’ Tastes change. It’s the only certainty about them.
Besides, the idea of rebuilding anything is so completely at odds with the original spirit of the London and Birmingham Railway. Did they think about reinstating the medieval cow byres that once sat in Euston’s fields? Did they want gay peasants in smocks dancing around a maypole? No, they did not. The idea of rebuilding Euston Arch is a betrayal of progressive Victorian values, not a hommage to them.
A lot went missing in the Sixties. The entire church of St Mary Aldermanbury was dismantled and sent to Fulton, Missouri. The Coal Exchange, a more interesting design than Euston Arch, was foolishly knocked down. In New York, they lost the whole of Penn Station. But against these deplorable losses, London and New York put on flamboyant surges in commerce and culture that made them the two greatest cities in the world today. Granted, the excitements of the King’s Road would not have been less if Euston Arch had been retained, but it’s a curious mentality that wants to redress an atrocity by returning to the crime scene rather than moving on.
In the meantime, by all means redevelop Euston station. The horrible, over-shopped concourse is a travesty of the architect’s original intentions. Better instead to commit to building something new that is so fine, no one would ever want to demolish it. Meanwhile, zombie worship of an 1837 propylaeum is civic cowardice, a sad reminder of our national inclination to prefer the view looking backwards. Rebuilding Euston Arch with gourmet rubble would shunt this forlorn part of London up a siding of history. Much better to fast track to an optimistic future.