Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As seen in this 1968 newsreel, not even Elizabeth II’s odd, feathered hat could enliven the modern transit hub at its grand opening.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
I have seen the future, and it’s gray.
That’s the first impression a viewer gets from an intriguing 1968 film showing Queen Elizabeth II opening London’s rebuilt Euston Station. The first of London’s intercity rail terminals when it was constructed in 1838, old Euston was seen as confusing and grimy by the end of World War II, its layout struggling to cope with its role as the main hub for all trains to the English Midlands and Northwest. The new terminus, as shown in the British Pathé news bulletin clip above, would be a minimal but efficient, sparkling glimpse of Britain’s future.
That future is now showing its age a little. The new station, designed by William Robert Headley, has an initial somberness to it in the film, one that not even the queen’s odd, feathered hat can enliven. Jump to three minutes fifty, however, and you’ll see how striking, how minimal and spacious Euston must have looked at the time, with its lofty, vaulted hall held up by slender, gleaming black columns. The building manages to recall London’s great steam age terminuses, while still using a completely new vocabulary—and with glass walls replacing the traditional glass roofed shed. The film reveals the terminus as a hive of cutting-edge technology, such as the huge back-office typewriters that dispense a trail of tape shown to the queen on her tour. Ticket offices are no longer narrow, windowed boxes but like the reception desks of a grand hotel, all fitted with a modern ticket printing machine that looks like a sort of gargantuan loom.
Meanwhile the public refreshment facilities house something positively avant-garde for Britain at that period: rotisseries that spin chickens and bread rolls as if they were being treated to a ride on a Ferris wheel. In a city where most older building were still caulked with a thick layer of Dickensian coal soot, the station must have looked like a time capsule from the future, made familiar to 1960s Londoners only by the pasty complexions of its employees and the reassuringly awful look of the food being sold.
There’s still some documenting here of why Euston ultimately proved unpopular. At 4:05 we get a glimpse of the station forecourt—an arid waste of paving without life or much utility. Nowadays this forecourt is flanked by towers built in 1979, partly filled in with new fast casual restaurants and softened by the odd thicket of bushes. It’s still a charmless afterthought, especially when you consider what was demolished to make way for it: an interesting knot of buildings including a neoclassical crescent and a triumphal Doric gateway—the Euston Arch, formerly the station’s great landmark. Clearing these away may have helped realize that great late 20th century fetish of separating cars and pedestrians by creating a large underground garage. It was still a crime nonetheless, one bitterly resisted at the time. Campaigns to return the dismantled arch to its original site have continued to rumble over the decades.
By contrast, the station itself is really not bad at all, even as it nears its 50th birthday this October. The proportions of its main hall have been made squatter by the addition of a mezzanine, while kiosks cluttering the concourse have robbed it of that sense of space and order. But as the functional, well-designed nucleus of a complex that’s otherwise difficult to like, it’s stood the test of time well enough.