A bit of South London

16 min


When plans to revamp London Bridge station, one of the busiest transport hubs in the UK, were signed off in 2009, planners behind the project had quite the task at hand. Now, a decade later with a bounty of awards to its name, London Bridge station is revered globally and has brought a previously-divided community in the capital back together. Tangent sits down with principal architects behind the station Grimshaw to find out more

When the £1bn revitalisation roject of London’s oldest operating station was approved in 2009, the brains trust behind the proposals were faced with an eclectic mix of challenges: carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the station in one of the busiest cities in the world; introduce cutting-edge materials to the senescent interior, whilst preserving the indispensable features of the building itself; create a community hub fit to reunite Southwark, an area split for almost 200 years when the station was first built; and, if that wasn’t difficult enough, conduct works whilst the station continues to operate, providing services to thousands of passengers daily in the capital.

It’s burdensome to put these challenges into scale when you consider the sheer number of stakeholders involved in a project of this size: beyond just the passengers, designers have to consider the client, Network Rail, as well as the TOCs and neighbours at the nearby Guy’s Hospital and The Shard. This is without taking into account the handful of satellite stakeholders such as Southwark Borough Council, and the Bermondsey Village Action Group’s repeated demands to ensure that the station, and the area surrounding it, is preserved.

Managing the spheres

For Mark Middleton, partner at principal architects Grimshaw Global, the complex transport network to manoeuvre through both on the interior and surrounding London Bridge and navigating the “spheres of influence” presented one of the biggest challenges for designers. “Transport interchanges, especially ones in the hearts of cities, are probably one of the most complicated that architects are ever going to look at – because traditionally, architects deal with a single client and probably one planning area or one set of things,” he told Tangent.

“If you picture the different parties involved individually as spheres of influence, they all have their own requirements you have to meet. Our job is to find the point at which all of those overlap so that we can get the go-ahead to proceed, and we have to design good architecture in a very, very constrained site.”

Occupying an area to the southeast of the iconic London Bridge, the eponymous mainline station is one of the oldest in the world, having opened in 1836. One of the key lynchpins in connecting south London with the rest of the capital, London Bridge station is the fourth busiest in the UK, with 50 million passengers passing through its doors every year. Network Rail’s prerequisite to keep London Bridge running whilst upgrade works began was crucial to keep the capital moving, and signified the intent to keep disruption for passengers to the minimum.

According to Mark, underpinning the design of the new space was a strong community-led focus. “What we have to do is always be thinking about the passenger experience,” he noted, adding: “How is the community going to interact? What are the intangible benefits by doing something or not doing something? For us, building it on time and to budget – and in a way that can be sequenced and can be built while the station is still operating – is a given, but then the intangibles are: ‘Can this be a vibrant environment?’”

Its striking interior is part of the movement to reconnect a community landscape thrown into disarray since the station’s at-times chaotic growth since 1836. “London Bridge basically grew organically in steps, from 1836 to 1902, which was the last major growth,” Mark explained. “It didn’t have a masterplan; this isn’t Gilbert Scott at St Pancras or Brunel at Paddington. This was an ad-hoc station, a brick collage of elements put together.”

The unspooling of track and buildings from the station led to break-ups of clusters of communities around London Bridge – a wrong the team behind the revamp has been working to right since the works were first announced a decade ago.

Bringing communities together

The team behind the refurbishment of the station looked west for inspiration: Grand Central station, in New York, hosts a network of different arteries and tributaries into the building, providing passengers with an array of varying entry points; designers behind the new London Bridge wanted much of the same. “You can enter from The Shard, you can enter from Western Arcade, from St Thomas Street, there are lots of different ways you can get into it – but the unifying element is that beautiful civic room that is top-lit with daylight. It’s got the wooden cladding, granite floors and these muscular concrete columns, which creates this lovely civic environment,” described the Grimshaw partner.

The intent was to create a mobility hub south London could call its own. “There’s a divide between north and south London, but south London now has a major transportation hub, something they can be proud of, we believe,” said Mark. “It’s also a bit more south London – it’s a bit more about community, it’s a bit more about connection, it’s a bit less about Victorian grandeur. It’s got a civic grandeur that’s all based around people and their interaction with the community, which I think is what the future of a lot of transportation hubs will be.

“The future of stations is no longer passenger-centric. Passengers are part of the electorate, or the caucus; it’s also a local community, so you’ve got a working community as well as the community that lives there. There are spaces that can be programmed to have choirs, to have gardens in them, they have all sorts of bits for the local community.

“I think we’ve created a great new civic hall for that part of the city.”

The scheme itself is largely an adaptive reuse project, with around 52% of everything built used from materials in the existing building.

Working with Network Rail, Grimshaw architects moved into a multi-storey cabin adjacent to the site, bringing together engineers and mechanical and structural architects all organised by teams. “We had a concourse team and a canopies team, for example. We had all of this working together with our clients, sitting there across from the site working on packages alongside the critical path, making sure that we were designing, building, and tendering in the right way, and that we were sorting out all of our issues there and then,” Mark explained.

One of the common problems with projects of this scale is that it can result in, as Mark put it, “presentation tennis.” On the London Bridge build, though, issues were met with swiftness and decisiveness. “A lot of projects like this can get into presentation tennis – we do some work, we present it to you, and you then go away and refer to it and present back,” he commented. “There was none of that. It was all very much, ‘Here’s a problem, how can we sort it?’”

Should it stay or should it go?

Part of Grimshaw’s work with surrounding stakeholders required some compromise: Southwark Council – understandably, as it had been through the application process for a London Bridge station refurbishment several times before – was “very particular and had conditions” on what was to be kept from the existing structure. The pleasant brickwork wall along the St Thomas Street façade, for example, was Grade II listed, meaning Grimshaw planners had to adjust and accommodate for the varying historical installations at London Bridge station. “They were very insistent on that façade being sympathetic to the existing heritage – so the scheme we had had to be altered to accommodate certain historical features in there,” Mark said. “It was probably not what we wanted to do, but you’re on a timescale, so you find a compromise and you make it work.”

The team ensured the new façade followed some of the same “rhythm and shapes, but built in a totally different way,” Mark noted. The new façade is built on precast concrete panels with brick slips: “Again we would have liked to have built that with brick, but with the programme you have to embrace new technology.”

When you walk around the expanses of the transformed London Bridge station, you can see thought put into every nook and cranny. Designed to accommodate almost double the previous passenger capacity per year, at a massive 90 million, the new street-level concourse is larger than the football pitch at Wembley stadium. Also to cope with the surge in passengers, a host of extended platforms, three new through tracks, and links to external travel routes have been installed. Beneath the tracks is a naturally lit space with entry and exit points, hedged with timber-lined soffits drinking in light from the open-topped platforms above.

The new visual components of the station are a marriage of new innovations and lessons learnt from previous projects Mark has worked on. The Grimshaw partner has more than two decades of experience working on Southern Cross in Melbourne, as well as on domestic station projects such as Paddington, Reading, Newport, and a handful of others. But what learnings did he take to the London Bridge scheme?

“The innovation of how we worked as a team means I would always advise a client to bring people together; don’t be siloed. A good co-location around areas for that camaraderie is always very good,” Mark argued. “In terms of technical innovation, we had done some modular canopy systems for Reading station which we’d done before London Bridge, and we took that to London Bridge so that’s actually ‘take 2’ of some internal innovation R&D that we’d been doing.

“We have used self-finished material, from timber, to concrete, to granite, because we know that these places are not maintained. You have to go with the self-finished material that’s going to take some knocks, but also get a patina over time that still looks good, even if someone doesn’t touch them for a few years. And I think that is the case.

“For us, London Bridge is part of an evolution of our design work; it’s a stop along the path. We also learned a few things that we’ll take forward, so it’s been a really useful process for us.”

Because of the station’s dishevelled sprawl throughout the 1800s, Mark noted that there were but a few features with “real quality in there”; some areas of heritage, such as the St Thomas Street façade, meant the team behind the revamp had to be creative with its renewal plan.

“There were odds and ends of heritage, but they were things whereby you’ve almost got to deal with the memory of it,” Mark asserted. “An example is the Western Arcade, which connects the Underground to the main concourse; this is the oldest part of the station, built in 1836, and it has these beautiful brick quadripartite arches. A lot of them had been demolished or changed through the life of the building, and what we were doing was taking that and increasing its length by 300%, so we were adding to make it three times the length that it was.

“We wanted to keep the feeling that was there, but we couldn’t use brick arches because it takes too long. We followed the form of the original quadripartite arches, but we did it in board-marked concrete, so it was done quicker and faster while still having the same memory of it there – yet there’s a very clear delineation of what’s old and what’s new.

“So you have this beautiful vaulting and this reinvigoration and reimagining of the existing 1836 viaduct, which is incredibly important in the development of transportation in London as it was the first one when they did the London and Greenwich Railway – but part of that is new.”

Despite the challenge of juggling a plethora of stakeholder demands of what they wanted out of the new-look station, it’s fair to say London Bridge will contribute to the reputations of Grimshaw and the entire work team: the station was a finalist in the highly sought-after RIBA Stirling Prize 2019, as well as picking up the Architects’ Journal Building of the Year 2019 amongst a host of other recognitions in the architecture sector.

“There was a real purpose behind what we were doing. The whole team felt that we were doing something really important for London, and I think it united everyone. That that has been represented for the number of awards we’ve won,” Mark commented. “I think people recognised the endeavour: not only is it a low-carbon community-based solution, it’s also bloody difficult to do in terms of architecture. It’s at the absolute apogee of where you work.

“Certainly, I know that the architecture profession is usually run by people who are raising a couple of lintels in Shoreditch, but here we’re doing major work that changes city and urban centres. That is rewarding in itself, and I think we’ve done an amazing job. Yes, there are corners that aren’t the best, but it’s 85,000sqm – it’s a big project – so the odd thing in the corner that doesn’t particularly work is fine, because cities are like that.”

Casting a wider look

Mark’s portfolio of working on major mobility projects around the globe gives him a unique perspective on how the UK’s architecture sector matches up against other developed countries and what they are looking for from their transport hubs. Last year there were an estimated 111,000 of architecture-related UK jobs in the creative industries, with the sector’s GVA soaring by almost 70% between 2010 and 2017.

The Grimshaw partner explained how he feels British architecture is seen across the world: “I think we’ve got a very sophisticated approach here, which is why we are sought after around the world. British architects work in the transportation infrastructure field because we know that a lot of others shun the work as it’s a bit grimy and a bit difficult, but I think we know from our Victorian history of making beautiful power stations and sewer and pumping systems that there is amazing architecture here. I think British architects and engineers have a very different approach to it than others – in other places it’s more utilitarian, whereas here more people like to celebrate it.”

He also believes that the approach other developed countries are taking is mixed. “If you go to America, they don’t really give a monkey’s about it. We are doing some work there, and the work we’ve done has been fairly successful, but the way they procure is by just getting engineering firms in there – architects aren’t involved in a lot of the decisions, and I think that does affect the quality of what they do,” Mark argued.

“But some places are different than others. We are doing projects in California, for example, where they are getting architects involved so that we can commit in full to that process. In other places they’re not – so even though it’s an incredibly developed country, it’s not particularly enlightened.

“Other places around the world are looking for these places to be an icon or a signature. And they just want to plop a railway station in the middle of nowhere. The best transport interchanges work via responding to a context of some description. If you go to all the TGV stations in France, the ones that are in cities are much better than the ones that sit outside of towns. Those ones are often a bit empty, underpopulated, and not really used that much; they’re almost relics where a train passes through twice a day.”

Australia’s efforts to invest in integrated mobility hubs were highlighted by Mark as a sign of a country reaching that “level of sophistication,” placing a focus on metro-like systems and moving away from the typically car-dominated culture across the nation. For the Grimshaw partner, this global shift towards building an intricate web of transport services will be a challenge that the architecture industry will have to consider going forward. “We’re working on HS2, the developments for Euston and things like that; that stuff is coming,” he noted. “But there should be a lot more work done with suburban stations to make them more like community hubs – they can have crèches, for example, and I think a lot of small interventions can make a big benefit to local communities.

“I don’t look at this as rail or aviation or metro – I see all of this as a network. It’s about how you move people from door to door. And it’s not just people in London; I’m also thinking about if a person in Sydney wanted to get here – what is the most appropriate low-carbon form of journey?”

Mark’s comments emblemise the approach Grimshaw and surrounding planners have taken to London Bridge station: a masterclass in visual design and engineering, but much more than just a building to take people to-and-fro in one of the most crowded cities on the planet. A bit of south London, the station is a place a once-fragmented community can now call their own.

As the choices for transport around city centres continues to grow, look for the architecture industry to be pulling together communities and urban spaces much more in the future.


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