Thursday, August 14, 2008
Paddington Station, London, terminal of the Great Western Railway linking England’s capital with the Atlantic port of Bristol, was designed by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859) with the assistance of architect Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820–1877). Built between 1850 and 1854, it was one of the first stations to utilize the iron-arched roof and the ridge-and-furrow roof glazing also employed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851. It led to further exploitation of the iron arch in stations such as St. Pancras (1863–1865) and to extensive use of the roofing system.
Railroad terminals were a significant nineteenth-century architectural development that added a new building type to the townscape. There were two quite specific types of space required—a head building that housed the pedestrian entrance, ticket sales area, baggage storage, and refreshment and waiting rooms, and an adjacent shed with platforms at which trains and travelers arrived and departed. The building type presented architects with a dilemma since there was no existing morphological or stylistic precedent. Therefore, the designers of the earliest railroad stations merely adopted or adapted conventional building forms, materials, and styles. As the popularity of train travel increased, so did the need for wider station sheds to accommodate more tracks and platforms; because of the limitations of traditional construction technology, structural advances and new materials such as iron and glass offered potential solutions. The relatively new profession of engineers, unrestrained by historicism, took up the challenge and designed sheds that exposed contemporary materials and advances and (most importantly) met their clients’ demands. Sometimes they collaborated with an architect, as Brunel did by inviting Wyatt to design Paddington’s decorative details. But despite innovation and audacity, the architectural form and esthetic of the railroad sheds was not well received, and they were obscured by a masonry head building that looked back to any of a number of past styles.
Brunel, son of French-born engineer Marc Brunel (1769–1849), served his apprenticeship supervising the construction of his father’s Thames Tunnel project (1825–1843). Although work there was in abeyance, he won a commission for the acclaimed Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol (1829). In 1833 the promoters of the Great Western Railway appointed him engineer of the bold project to connect London by rail with the west of England. Brunel chose and surveyed the route and prepared plans. Despite outspoken opposition from landowners and rival transport providers, he argued the railroad’s merits in lengthy public hearings and before a parliamentary committee. He was highly praised for his persistence and performance when the bill for the Great Western Railroad was finally approved in August 1835. During the line’s construction, Brunel supervised the laying of tracks and the building of bridges, viaducts, and tunnels, including the 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) Box Tunnel, which took about two and a half years to complete. The 151-mile (241.6-kilometer) railroad was finished in mid-1841 with one terminus at Temple Meads in Bristol and the other at Paddington, then a new suburb west of London. Brunel designed the Gothic-inspired Temple Meads Station (1839–1840) with its striking unsupported timber-arch roof spanning 72 feet (21 meters). The first Paddington Station was a temporary structure fitted between the arches of a road bridge. The permanent and grander replacement commenced in 1850 and was finished four years later.
Paddington Station was built in a cutting and without a main facade. The Great Western Hotel (later Great Western Royal Hotel) of 1851–1853 by the architect Philip Hardwick (1820–1890) was next to the shed and served as its head building. Its Italian Renaissance detail, twin Jacobean towers, and mansard roof contrasted sharply with Brunel’s airy, cathedral-like structure.
The entire train shed was 700 feet long, 238 feet wide, and 33 feet high (214 by 70 by 10 meters), covered by a triple-arched roof. The central arch, spanning 102 feet (31 meters), was flanked by one of 70 feet (21 meters) and another of 68 feet (20 meters). Two 50-foot-wide (15-meter) transepts integrated the space. In 1916, a fourth shed, spanning 109 feet (30 meters), was added on the northeast side. Originally, in the absence of a southern concourse, a retractable drawbridge provided access to the inner platforms. The roof, ironclad and partly glazed, was carried on slender wrought-iron arches; a cast-iron column bolted to a brick foundation supported every third rib. Wyatt provided the neo-Renaissance-cum-Moorish embellishments to the columns and the sinuous wrought-iron ornamentation in the glazed end-arches. The effect of the spacious train shed interior has been described as “dramatic” and its ambiance as that of a greenhouse.
Paddington Station is now a heritage-listed building under redevelopment by architects Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners as the central London terminal for the express train to Heathrow Airport. A concourse extension, named the “Lawn Area” because it incorporates the site of the station master’s former garden, has been covered by a glass roof. Glass and aluminum have been used extensively to enhance the character of Brunel’s building. The second stage of the project includes replacement of the 1916 train shed with a new concourse opening to the adjacent Regent’s Canal; a prominent transfer structure is also proposed with more buildings, including a 42-story tower block.