The Architecture of Railway Stations

Looking through the periodicals in the collections of the RIBA, we get to see how the railways and their architecture developed in Britain and abroad, from their revolutionary beginnings in the 19th century to their recent renaissance. 




St Pancras Station, London, 1869 © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection

St Pancras Station, London. Source: Building News, 26 March 1869, pp.278-279 
© RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection

When the building of the London Bridge Railways Terminus Hotel was nearing completion, its architect Henry Currey wrote a piece in the Builder (8 March 1862) describing its progress. Back then London was preparing for a major event by building new facilities. In May of that year, the 1862 International Exhibition was to open and with it the firm expectation that more travellers would be coming into the city. According to Currey, by building this 200-room hotel “ London, which has hitherto been badly supplied with hotel accommodation, is at last making a move in the right direction. ” He describes some of the facilities, including coffee rooms, a linen department, library and reading room. It started a trend in luxury hotels at railway stations and a decade later Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel was opened at St Pancras station.

London Bridge Station. Image by Jean Marchant, 1845. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

London Bridge Station designed by Henry Roberts and completed in 1844. Image by Jean Marchant, 1845.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Sadly these grand hotels fell out of favour or turned out to be uneconomical to run. Both hotels at London Bridge and St Pancras became offices for the railway companies that they once served. While the former Midland Hotel was saved and recently renovated to become a hotel again, Currey’s six-storey building was lost during enemy action in World War II. In 2012 its former site at the corner of St. Thomas and Joiner Street saw the completion of the Shard, where the spirit of Currey’s building will live on in a luxury hotel that will take up several floors of Europe’s tallest building.

The new American stations

The British were at the forefront of railway technology and architecture in the 19th century; the train shed at St Pancras station on its completion in 1868 became the largest enclosed space in the world. In the next century, further advances were made on the other side of the Atlantic.  Across Europe, journals in the early years of the 20th century began showing growing admiration for the emerging architecture of the United States, including their railway stations. New York had just seen new stations built whose size and good design overshadowed those built on the other side of the Atlantic.

If one may venture into the realm of prophecy, it must be to express the belief that there is a bright prospect for architecture in America

The Architects’ & Builders’ Journal  (20 March 1912) looked at the classical splendour of Pennsylvania Station in an article titled ' American   Architecture from the British Point of View' . It must have fed into the Edwardian unease at the shift in economic power away from Britain and the growing confidence of American architects: “ If one may venture into the realm of prophecy, it must be to express the belief that there is a bright prospect for architecture in America ”. Completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was used by the journal as an example of the features identified in American architecture: “ vigour, competence, singleness of purpose. ” Every part was designed and its layout planned by McKim, Mead and White Architects, creating a dignified and well-ordered station; when making a comparison of this and other American stations with the newer termini in the British capital, the writer declared: “ we weep for London ”!

The Beaux-Arts style Grand Central Terminal building was a year from completion when the  Deutsche Bauzeitung  (30 March 1912) described it in detail, replete with drawings of its cavernous interior and the visual impact at street level.

The new King’s Cross

Western Concourse, King’s Cross station. © Hufton+Crow
Western Concourse, King’s Cross station 
© Hufton+Crow

Since 1900, the railways and their grandest urban manifestations, the railway stations, have undergone a much lamented decline, reversed in more recent years by new investment and renovation projects. In 2012 many architectural journals and national newspapers reported on the opening of the new concourse at King’s Cross station in London. Designed by architects John McAslan + Partners with engineer ARUP, the concourse is part of a £500 million redevelopment of the station. Through history we have seen architects – working in tandem with engineers and other designers – playing a vital role in major world events, by designing not just the venues, but the means to accommodate and transport the great number of visitors.  



Western Concourse, King’s Cross station. © Hufton+CrowGrand Central Terminal, New York. Source: Deutsche Bauzeitung, 30 March 1912, pp.240-1. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals CollectionMidland Grand Hotel, in 1966 (left) and train shed of St Pancras Station in the 1930s (right). © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection