¶ … nineteenth century architecture of Saint Pancras Station from the vantage of the early twenty-first century, the seeming proud grandeur of the design can blind us to the strange and difficult reception that this architecture had on contemporary critics. In the 1870s, the legendary Victorian art critic John Ruskin is reported to have remarked "At Paddington station I felt as if in hell" (Pearce 63). Presumably Ruskin was alluding to the vast urban architecture of Milton's depiction of the city of Pandemonium built in hell by the fallen angels of Paradise Lost -- a magnificent but morally wicked architectural achievement, and the reason why earlier in the Industrial Revolution, Blake had inveighed against the "dark Satanic mills" which had a monumental grandeur that served a wicked purpose. But to enter Saint Pancras Station in 2015 may very well have the opposite effect: the building feels like a cathedral built not to glorify God but the railway.
Historical context here is all important: for Ruskin, the rapid building of railway stations in the Victorian era indicated the rapid destruction of what remained of England's natural beauty. By the twenty-first century, the grandeur of railway travel suggested by this secular Victorian cathedral now actually maintains a kind of moral superiority -- if we are committed enough to "green" ideas, and to the kind of Burkean-cum-ecological approach to the natural environment that Ruskin himself advocated, then it becomes clear that railways remain a vast improvement over automobiles, and are strangely beloved to the British population. From Thomas the Tank Engine to Shining Time Station to David Hare's The Permanent Way to trainspotters nationwide, Britain as a nation retains a certain reverence for railway travel in 2015 that would be unfamiliar in Germany or the United States. But the architectural meaning of Saint Pancras is actually somewhat ironic: at the time it was built, the most important critic in England thought it was the devil's own work. Roughly a century and a half after this station was built -- and roughly a half-century after it was slated for demolition by Britain's postwar urban planners -- this pretentious red-brick birthday-cake (looking like the bastard child of the Palace of Westminster begat upon the main quad of Keble College Oxford) somehow remains a beloved national monument in 2015.
As we begin our walk here at Saint Pancras Station, we must begin with Ruskin's deepest insight as a critic of art and design: to a certain degree, these aesthetic choices are moral choices as well. Ruskin despised the Victorian railway terminals of London because they represented the elision of the natural countryside in the name of unrestricted capitalist "progress." Ironically enough, now railways seem like Britain's best chance to preserve the natural countryside -- the moral meaning of this secular cathedral has thus been inverted, and Ruskin would very well approve the meaning Saint Pancras Station presently holds within the cultural context of 2015. Yet the case is slightly different when we move nearby to Saint Pancras Old Church, which gives its name to the neighborhood. This church is claimed to be the oldest in England; the architectural information posted outside claims that it possibly dates back as early as the fourth century, making it roughly contemporary with the historical Saint Patrick. If this is true, then the modesty of its architecture does seem to indicate a greater closeness to the historical Christianity which held the meek would inherit the earth: this is not Saint Paul's or Westminster Abbey. However we must wonder in approaching this church whether we are faced with a real-world example of the famous logical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus: every element of this building has presumably been rebuilt, redesigned, or replaced in some way, so what is the precise meaning of claiming this as a fourth century site from early Christians in Roman Britain? One of the historical quirks of Saint Pancras Old Church is that it permitted the burial of Roman Catholics after their religion became outlawed in the sixteenth century: perhaps the great antiquity suggests a kind of primordial magic that trumps sectarian differences in the human imagination, and permitted a kind of sanctuary at the height of religiously-motivated hostilities within English society itself (Saint Pancras Old Church, 2015).
But this is a matter of the lingering...
Whatever collective meaning of ritual worship originally adhered to Glastonbury Abbey, that led to the mythic belief that it housed the Holy Grail, now it is essentially a National Trust house and the collective meaning and ritual worship are transferred to the Glastonbury music festival. Old Saint Pancras Church seems to have maintained its reputation as a holy site since the fourth century, but it is impossible to view the actual building and grounds as anything other than bricolage. For example, the mausoleum of the Regency-era Neo-Classical architect Sir John Soane is located here, although his own design work is viewable not too far away at One Marylebone Road, built as a church but now in disuse for that purpose (Sir John Soane 2015). Soane's monument to himself here, on the grounds of Old Saint Pancras, are famous for having provided the inspiration for the form of the historical London phone-boxes and Doctor Who's TARDIS (Saint Pancras Old Church 2015). It bears no relation to anything else architecturally around it, and instead looks like a dollhouse cathedral built by a vainglorious empire-builder to house himself on a sacred ground. Conceptually, however, it seems as weird as imagining if Queen Victoria had built the Albert Memorial in the middle of Stonehenge. But experienced in context, it doesn't seem quite so weird -- instead the congeries of styles are at least built to a common purpose, and one which seems to have been maintained even in an essentially post-Christian Britain. We may remember Philip Larkin's late twentieth century poem "Church-Going," which celebrates the idea of finding something meaningful in church architecture in an age of unbelief: "since someone will forever be surprising / a hunger in himself to be more serious / and gravitating with it to this ground" (Larkin 169). It is unlikely that Sir John Soane had anything in common with the fourth century Romanized savages who supposedly practiced Christianity on this spot apart from this same basic impulse to seriousness. But something about the seriousness requires modesty: even if Soane's monument seems ludicrously self-aggrandizing in one sense, in another sense it is a strange relief that it's so modestly-sized.
And yet there is a basic contrast in the ideals represented by these two sites, the ancient rubbish-heap of Old Saint Pancras Church and Saint Pancras Railway Station, a state-sponsored secular cathedral built at empire's height. The first seems to be like a vortex, in which people are constantly returning for some spiritual purpose, within the context of an overall modest and underwhelming design. The railway station by contrast is intended to be as reliable, authoritative, and totalizing as the state power that introduced such technological amenities to the British population in the Victorian era. Ruskin was able to find wickedness in Victorian railway stations, perhaps because of this single-mindedness of purpose. That single-mindedness has, a century and a half later, come to seem like it is in service of a better moral purpose than when it was built.
But we need to acknowledge that there is a moral component to architecture, or at least the way architecture is used, and can influence human behavior and thought. Kingsley Amis memorably suggested in a poem, in which two cheating spouses tryst underneath the hideous architecture of a new Boots in a postwar suburb in Wales, that British architecture might very well reflect the state of the national soul:
The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town centre they could find
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind? (quoted Leader 2006, 439)
How does the "worst town centre" in Britain get built? By a failure of planning and conservation, presumably, not by active design. Saint Pancras Railway Station was, as noted, slated for demolition fifty years ago: at that point, after the Blitzkrieg and after Suez, its Victorian excess must have seemed like an uncomfortable reminder of a vanished imperial hubris (Saint Pancras Railway Station 2015). Who knows what inspired the corresponding affection that saved the building from oblivion. But we would be wise to consider the slightly weirder, more accidental, more inconsistent experience of Old Saint Pancras Church to be a better model for how to understand architectural seriousness -- here instead we see all the accidents of history piled atop one another, as though this were a site for people to come privately and experience centuries of seriousness in a modest and evolving physical environment.
Larkin, Philip, 2003, Collected Poems, London, Faber and Faber.
Leader, Zachary, 2006, The Life of Kingsley Amis, London, Jonathan Cape.…
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