Often derided, as much for its admittedly shabby appearance and dated frontage, as for how it reduced the Euston Arch to rubble, Euston Station is not a particularly loved building.

However, probably the very largest and most dramatic part of its architecture – something that covers almost the entire waiting concourse is totally ignored by most visitors.

Look up – yes, look at the ceiling. Have you ever noticed it?  It’s pretty damn good.

Euston Station

And when you do look up, you can start to see some of the genius of this maligned building. While today the concourse is cluttered up with shabby looking huts in the middle of the floor, originally none of that existed.

When opened, the concourse was an empty open space, with this vast coffered concrete ceiling supported by just a few comparatively slender steel beams. Almost impossible to have been built before, this really is quite an astonishing achievement to have such a vast space with so few pillars cluttering up the floor.

That ceiling is no mere, functional structure though. Notice how the concrete splays out slightly at the joints giving a smoothness to the lines that a pure right angle would have delivered with too harsh an intersection. Subtle curving within the recesses add to the design and add a sense of organic curvature to a brutal structure.

If that ceiling was made of anything other than concrete, it would be considered a marvel. But make it from concrete, and people wont care for it.

Euston Station

Another huge change that we don’t fully appreciate today is that it was not unusual for most stations to have a road running through the middle of the passenger concourse – but Euston pushed all the road facilities for post and parcels underground. Euston was novel in having a wide space totally dedicated to passengers.

It was a functional structure that was in stark contrast to the grand receptions offered visitors to Victorian railways. However, those grand Victorian structures themselves served a commercial purpose — to reassure customers that these new fangled steam monsters were safe stable things controlled by great stable companies.

As trains entered the electric age, was that sort of thing necessary any more?

So we have a functional structure that has however sadly lost most of its original design features, which if they had been retained, could lift this station to the elevated levels of a 1960s heritage icon.

The platforms are dreary, as they are in many stations. The food stalls and shops all have their own clashing aesthetics and there is no sense of an overall controlling plan to tidy up the place. The tiles are dirty, broken and unloved. The signage clinging onto the central supporting pillars disguise the remarkable thinness of those structures.

The less said about the cheap use of up lighters strung on wires between them the better.

Euston Station

…but.

Lets step back and look at the building again – shorn of the clutter that has been allowed to build up over the years.

Deploy an ordered single aesthetic to the retail stalls with a suitable 1960s facade surrounding them. Replace the up lighters with something more suitable to highlighting the recesses in the ceiling.

And finally, get rid of the huts in the middle of the concourse.

Let the concourse breathe again, and let people arrive not into a cluster of small patches of empty floor, but into a vast cathedral of space. Let people once again admire the sheer vastness of the roof spans.

None of these changes are expensive, indeed, they are comparatively cheap. But what a huge difference they would make.

Just as St Pancras and King’s Cross are being restored to their Victorian grandeur, why shouldn’t Euston be cleaned up and restored at least superficially to the vast open spaces and clean lines it enjoyed in the 1970s?

People will probably never come to love Euston, but they’ll appreciate it a lot more.

Euston Station - early artists impression

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17 Comments

  1. Henry

    Hear, hear! If new Euston is demolished for HS2, then we will be repeating the same mistake when the place was last rebuilt – tearing down the place when its architecture is deeply unfashionable, ignoring that it might actually be excellent, particularly with a bit of TLC.

    And you haven’t even mentioned the stunning booking centre with its space-age textured ceiling and uplighting…

  2. You’re absolutely right. Euston is a glorious bit of architecture that’s been let down by multiple layers of poor management and individual incremental changes, each of which had its own metric of success without looking at the broader impact. “We must derive more income from third party retail rent”; “we must signpost X better”; “we must signpost Y/Z better”; “we must put some cash machines in”; etc.

    So with each “improvement” so the overall experience is reduced, as everything fights for space and the view gets cluttered. It’s as if nobody has taken responsibility for the overall UX (if I can draw that parallel) to the station, in recent years. It was probably never quite as shewn in the 70s artist’s impression, but it was a lot better than it is now.

    My guess is that although fairly simple (as your reasonable changes as suggested are) as HS2’s terminus is being debated, no changes of note will be made at Euston.

    But then, don’t even mention the terrible bus interchange. Or the words “Doric” and “Arch”…

  3. Incidentally, the focus on the ceiling: it’s a reminder that so much gloriously unspoilt/interesting architecture of the past exists in today’s world – if one only looks above the ground floor.

    Travel around any British town but look above ground level and the usual identikit High Streets – look above the plastic shop signs and plate glass frontages – and there’s a wealth of incredibly interesting stuff there.

    I reckon few people do that. (But then I do, and that’s probably why I’ve been hit by two cars and hospitalised in the past).

  4. Kevin

    When Euston is redone it will be because it is required. It’s already too small for the number of people and facilities it is trying to (and needs to) provide.
    Look at how good the new Kings Cross departures is. It can be redone properly because of the mistakes of the past.
    For such an important station Euston’s ‘public’ area is tiny compared to similar stations.

  5. You’ll find similar examples in Poland, all damaged by the accretion of retail into areas that were built to be empty spaces. Euston is only an obstacle course because of the ugly huts allowed to marr the main concourse – look at what the removal of 70s clutter is doing for Kings Cross. They should be doing the same at Euston…

  6. I share your pleasure in the ceilings and enjoyed the spaces before they got cluttered with the retail shanty-town. Whether it should be retained I’m not sure but discussion like this should help work out what the possibilities are.

    Another forgotten feature of the building is the huge slab over the platforms which originally housed the parcels office, can carry big articulated trucks and has enough volume to hold a good size shopping mall. Unused for 10 or 20 years, I think.

    The pathetic management of the external space gave rise to the Euston Puddle on which I have blogged and campaigned at length

  7. Speaking as someone who uses this station regularly, I’m sorry to shatter your illusion. It is unfit for purpose, and this is nothing to do with any of the huts in the middle of the space. The escalators to the Tube – not shown in any of your pictures – are oriented perpendicularly relative to the direction of the platforms, and are squashed right up parallel to the station frontage. There is a gap of about three feet in between, with a wall on one side and an array of tiny shops on the other. Most people exiting the station from the Underground (i.e. not catching a main line train) and heading in a westerly direction naturally turn 180 degrees on exit from the escalators and walk along this alley – all hundreds of thousands of them per year.

  8. I commuted into Euston for a good 20 years, back when it was leaky and possible to nip through the underground bit or out the side saving time to Euston Square or up to Mornington Crescent to get the 214.

    You’ve pointed out it has some charm, albeit the slightly dodgy charm of the era. Maybe it could be salvaged. Some decent lighting and clearing the floor as you point out. BUT! I think HS2 has really dropped a ball. A whole new station on all that decrepit land on the west side could be stunning. We shall see. There’s a lot more politics to come.

  9. Kirsty E Smith

    Thanks for these great photos. It was exciting that you feel as enthusiastic about this ceiling as I do. I regularly travel to London and Euston is the station that I use. It was just a few months ago that I became aware of the ceilings and they are very definitely impressive.

  10. Julie McNamee

    Thanks Ian. It’s a station that I run through as quickly as possible and tut to myself about the destruction of the arch every time. But I’d never considered that the concorse had ever looked any different than it has since I arrived in the city 7 years ago.

  11. Richard

    Fantastic post Ian – Euston is a splendid station and largely intact – those horrible accretions could easily be removed. Traveller’s Fare (which is what British Transport Hotels became) had a unified style – yellow and red – from the end of the seventies. The first class lounge appears to have the original carpet still which I noticed when I was in there one day – it looks like a diagram of a track.
    Lets hope somebody loves it.

    • Tony Tugnutt

      Dear Ian, I live locally so use the station almost daily as it is my nearest tube and I also site on a local conservation committee which advises Camden and our boundary runs up to the front of the station and includes the square.
      How successful an campaign to get it listed would be I’m not sure but is worth a shot deffo!
      We managed to get Centrepoint listed another iconic example of swinging London. I actually think the front block and the hall is sexy in a sort of Italian way and certainly uplifting if you can vaporise all the clutter.
      Terry Farrell has been engaged by HS2 and of course he was responsible for Charing Cross station, which must be one of the most dreary and miserable of our London stations! AS my grannie advised me…never trust a Christian!
      Best Tony

  12. While I’ll certainly pay more attention to the fabric of Euston the next time I use it (this Friday…), I do think there’s always been something wretched about the way so many people are clumped in front of the departure screen because the space is so haphazard.

  13. Talking of concrete ceilings in London’s landmark buildings, take a look at the remarkable 1960’s domed ceiling to the Smithfield Poultry Market. Totally unprepossessing from the outside, its concrete shell structure never fails to astonish. Regarded as the largest structure of its kind in Europe at the time it was completed, its real triumph was its shallowness so as not to overpower the Victorian Horrace Jones Meat Market Halls, which are always worth revisiting.

  14. ross

    I am very exciting about my next trip to euston now! i shall be looking up the entire time.

    let us not forget the uniqueness of the euston stampede that is like no other station. must be something about the people who travel to the midlands or crewe!

  15. Tom Barney

    Yes Euston is so much better than it’s often been given credit for – and yes I shall look more closely than usual when I next pass through. But I think it is surpassed by some of the other reconstructions of the Manchester/Liverpool electrification scheme. If they haven’t already done so someone should list Coventry (unified style extending to the station name in grey worked into the side of the platform buildings) and Stafford (very fine use of reinforced concrete). On a smaller scale I have a personal liking for Tamworth. Macclesfield was good too but has now been wrecked.

  16. Mark Cooper

    Last December I accompanied my mobility restricted father thru’ Euston and for the first time had need to utilise the blue tug facility to connect to taxi rank. Never realised the exent of under concourse activity. This coupled with remote controlled gates gave something of the impression of an 007 villan’s lair. Highly recommended!

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