The Great British public are learning to love railway stations again, says Rob Naybour, one of the founding partners of architects Weston Williamson. While so many buildings, which have for generations served as the hubs of their communities, are being repurposed, railway stations have endured and are rediscovering their role in our towns and cities.
Functional by nature and, in many cases, functional by design, stations in the UK are experiencing a renaissance. New and redeveloped ‘destination stations’ are being built that seek to do much more than move people from place to place.
‘Funnily enough, the engineering heroes of the past understood and got this better in a way,’ said Rob, speaking at the Rail Exec Club in Leicester on 20 May.
‘Think about the great termini of London with their hotels, Huddersfield station with its fantastic public square right outside the station. They understood how to make a place, how to pull together great engineering, great spaces, hotels, passenger experience, commercial activity. They understood how that all worked together.’
Creating stations that serve communities, not just the practical needs of passengers, is something HS2 is hoping to do with the stations of the future. It was an unfamiliar concept initially. ‘When we first started as the architects for High Speed 2, designing Old Oak Common station, before we’d even had a start-up meeting with the client, I got a phone call to go and meet the director of regeneration and planning at Hammersmith & Fulham and my job was to explain the vision for Old Oak Common station because there had been an announcement that Old Oak Common station would not have a front door.
‘Imagine how you feel as the director of regeneration for a London borough – and this station, by the way, is designed for 250,000 passengers a day. It’s the link between High Speed 2 and Crossrail. To give you some idea, that’s like building Waterloo station out in Hammersmith and Fulham. It’s an enormous project.’
Station usage figures show many of us are spending more of our time at railway stations. Around 2.75 billion entries and exits were reported between 2014/15 – well over a billion more than in 1997/98.
‘The Victorian’s understood grandeur and they had a lot more public buildings to play with,’ Rob explained. ‘We no longer build churches, we don’t congregate in that way any more. Local authority offices, town halls might, and frequently are, offices, rented space. Libraries are few and far between. Post offices are no longer the centre of communities.
‘And one of the reasons why, if you like, we’re learning to love stations again, is they’re one of the few public buildings that we still use – still build and still need. They’re part of everybody’s day-to-day life in a town or city in a way that very few other buildings actually are.’
Throughout May, visitors to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in Portland Place were able to see some of the latest design visuals of Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) stations. Western Williamson is involved in the design of several of the Crossrail stations, including Paddington, Farringdon and Woolwich. Last year, Rob won RIBA’s London Project Architect of the Year for his work on the new Crossrail station at Paddington – which, according to Crossrail, draws on the design features of the famous London terminus with which it shares its name.
Rob hopes Paddington, like its Brunel-built namesake, will become a destination in its own right. ‘I came through St Pancras this morning and that’s a great example. And I think, partly through St Pancras, we’ve learned to love stations again and see them as places to go and to spend time. Hopefully our work at Paddington will be the same when that’s sort of unveiled with Crossrail in 2018.’