Down the line: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

OnOffice Magazine cover story, August 2018. Original article (PDF).

Station to Station: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

Any new building will change the face of a block. If the structure is significant enough it can even change an entire neighbourhood, like how the Shard propelled the entire London Bridge area into becoming a glitzy business piece of the City. But once in a rare while there’s an infrastructure project that has the chance to transform an entire city.

When this happens, it’s not just about the buildings or the trains that run underfoot – it’s about creating opportunities that will stand the test of time. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the future? For the people who move through the city on a daily basis, the open spaces and the green habitats around the buildings may well mark the difference between a city that’s merely functional, and a place to love.

Londoners have watched the construction of Crossrail happen around them for nine years now, eagerly anticipating the opening of the Elizabeth line at the end of this year. £14.8 billion has been spent to create a railway that will carry 200 million passengers a year. This is the largest construction project currently taking place in Europe, building 57 kilometres of new track to create a 118 kilometre-long railway set to bring 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital.  

But the train is only half the story. Ten brand new stations have been built along the line, and another 30 have been refurbished. Far beyond that – the surrounding areas have been profoundly influenced by this new lifeline. The presence of this major new transport link has inspired buildings, passages, and squares that will be part of daily life in the city for generations.

At Tottenham Court Road, the new Crossrail station is being built a little way down from the existing station.When you stand at the Newman Street entrance of the new Rathbone Place complex you can see where the crowds will soon make their way. Built atop what was previously a Royal Mail sorting office and a car park, Rathbone Place isn’t an official Crossrail project, but as Graham Longman, Lead Project Architect at Make Architects explains, many of the choices made in this mixed use development were determined by the proximity to the station.

Now, the Fitzrovia site is home to Facebook’s London office, but the presence of the tech giant is barely noticeable when you’re sitting in the garden surrounded by trees and flowers. “It really is all about the garden,” says Longman as he gives me the tour. There are three routes into the green space – two archways covered in glazed jade ceramic tiles, and one that’s open to the sky. That’s the main Crossrail route coming from Newman Street. Make worked with the Space Syntax Laboratory to model how people would flow from the station and into the garden, which makes for a scenic shortcut to the offices and houses of Fitzrovia.

“The garden is like a found space – it’s not obvious as you walk down the street. It’s a pressure valve to Oxford Street,” Longman continues as we find a spot in the shade, behind the public water fountain. The architect says it felt important to give something back to London with this project – central London developments are often tight and this is a relatively large site: “In the 1800s there would have been a lot of garden squares being built. We’re seeing less of that in modern times, but it’s an old model,” he says. “Open, green spaces, and roof gardens and balconies, are so important for people’s states of mind. These are spaces where people can feel happy to be in them.”

Public space, in the form of open squares and green gardens, are a red thread running through many of the architectural projects that have cropped up in the wake of Crossrail. At Canary Wharf, Crossrail Place is a surprising green oasis in the midst of a strictly business area – a deliberate effect, according to Ben Scott, Partner at Foster + Partners, the architecture studio behind Crossrail Place.

“Infrastructure projects act as natural magnets, pulling people in from across the city. We believe they are also an opportunity to create vibrant public spaces and amenities for people, maximising their potential,” says Scott. “The primary planning objective of the project was to create a clear, publicly accessible building that serves both the working population of Canary Wharf and its visitors, as well as the residential neighbourhood of Poplar.”

Foster + Partners worked with Canary Wharf Group to ensure the below-ground Crossrail station and the oversite development had a unified vision. This has been the case for the entire Elizabeth line – in fact, this is the first time that a major UK rail project, complete with stations and surrounding areas, has been designed at the same time. This created a unique opportunity to ensure that the new line not only fits in, but that it actually adds to the character of the city.

For several Crossrail-related architecture projects along the line, public life sits at the centre of new developments. When placemaking practice JTP was tasked with the Dickens Yard development in Ealing in West London, there was no doubt: this was an opportunity to create a new centre for Ealing. “It lacked a town square – it has Haven Green to the north but it didn’t really have a civic open space in the centre of town,” says Ian Fenn, Partner at JTP. Dickens Yard is not directly linked to Crossrail, but a large part of the appeal for the mixed use development is the increased footfall expected from the new trainline.

Dickens Yard sits on top of a former car park, but the square at the heart faces a number of listed buildings, including Christ the Saviour church, Ealing Town Hall, and Ealing Fire Station. “A key driver for the design was to create a series of linked spaces that embraced the context of the surrounding buildings,” says Fenn. “We created a new town square that [opened up] the main entrance of the church. The image was that people would spill out of the church on wedding days and into this new realm in the heart of Ealing.”

Architects working along the Crossrail path through central London have had to work in areas with a strong sense of history that had to be respected. Daniel Moore, Partner at PLP Architecture, says their design for the building sitting atop Farringdon East Crossrail station was bounded by conservation areas on three sides, one of them being Charterhouse Square, a Grade II-listed park that’s being opened to the public as part of the development. “We quickly realised we had to be sympathetic to the local context,” says Moore. “You have to treat it with respect, as these buildings may be sitting on the site for a hundred years – it’s a Crossrail station, so there’s an element of permanence.”

Civic architecture is different – building something that’s distinctly intended to improve the lives of the people comes with a sense of added responsibility. Every architect I spoke to echoed the pride and joy that comes with being trusted with creating something that will last generations – the Crossrail stations themselves are designed to last 120 years. Buildings can find a place in people’s hearts, but a public square, or a garden where anyone can go to have a quiet moment, becomes part of the fabric of the city.

The idea of Crossrail is over 100 years old, and its current iteration – the Elizabeth line – is the result of 20 years of planning, as Head of Architecture at Crossrail, Julian Robinson explains. “When you have a project that stretches over that length of time you’re able to plan in a wider way. It presented an opportunity to take a more integrated approach.” The new station at Tottenham Court Road will introduce a public space on Dean Street; Robinson explains how the space that’s opened up around around the existing Tube station at Charing Cross Road is a result of collaboration, as London Underground has been preparing for the added footfall. “Sometimes it’s serendipity as projects are coinciding, but the reason they’re coinciding is because of the degree of planning.”   

With any major building project in an old city like London, something will invariably be lost. The Saint Giles area by Tottenham Court Road – the “grubby” end of Oxford Street – is probably the piece of London that’s seen the most change as a consequence of Crossrail. The much-loved 1927 Astoria Theatre  had to be torn down to make room, along with the Grade II-listed building at 96 Dean Street. For people who know and love an area, it can be tough to accept what’s lost. But Robinson points out that a great deal of effort has been made to ensure that Crossrail preserves London’s character, and that it will improve the area for the people who use it.

A major civic architecture project like Crossrail is really about creating something for the future. When the scaffolding comes down, the stations will be taller and wider than what we’re used to seeing on the Tube. Londoners and visitors will add the new squares and gardens to their mental maps of resting spots throughout the city. Once the Elizabeth line opens, London will continue to mould itself around its new high-speed rail link – developers will see new opportunities, architects will get more opportunities to create open air, and people will adjust their habits. Because ultimately, Crossrail is about so much more than just a train. “The railway is there for people. London is there for people,” says Robinson. “Without the people you wouldn’t have the railway, and you wouldn’t have the city.”

 

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