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Raising the Euston Arch

Plans to redevelop the London station could include the resurrection of its much-missed Doric gateway. Let's hope so

Could it happen? Might the wondrous Euston Arch, so wrongfully demolished in 1962, return to front the new "super-terminus" planned to send a future generation of 250mph trains scything from London to Birmingham in 49 minutes – and beyond to Merseyside, Manchester and Glasgow? It is just possible.

A magnificent Greek Revival propylaeum, or monumental gateway, the Euston Arch was designed by Philip Hardwick, architect of Birmingham's Curzon Street Station, Euston's twin, and erected in 1838. Its wilful demolition was probably the greatest single act of civic and cultural barbarism in Britain between the end of the second world war and the Beatles' first LP.

The Conservative government had decided that Britain should be seen as a country finally emerging from the eras of steam, smokestack industry, Victorian values and austerity. In came the M1, high-rise council flats, fin-tailed family Morrises, pop groups and Midland Red express coaches from Birmingham to London. Out went the Euston Arch.

The 72-ft-high Doric gateway had been a brilliant conceit. It fronted the equally impressive Great Hall of the London terminus, built originally for Britain's first long-distance – or trunk – railway, the London and Birmingham. Such early railways saw themselves as the industrial-age inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman values, although they were determined to outstrip these lauded cultures in sheer daring, grandeur and engineering prowess. The London and Birmingham would be the successor to the famous Roman roads; and what better way to nod respectfully to the ancients than to have trains running from a neo-classical terminus?

By a quirk of history, permission to demolish the Euston Arch was given by Harold Macmillan, the Tory prime minister who had been quite the classical scholar in his youth. While wounded and waiting for a stretcher to rescue him from a trench during the first world war, he passed the time reading Aeschylus in the original Greek. Neo-Greek architecture, however, clearly meant nothing to him, except in representing the age of steam that had to go as Britain tried its comic worst to become a modern nation.

How attitudes have changed. Today, Dan Cruickshank, founder of the Euston Arch Trust, says: "What better way to mark High Speed 2 [the proposed London to Birmingham line] than restoring this spectacular monument as a landmark gateway to the new Euston. The architectural drama of the arch would be the perfect match for the excitement of the 250mph trains."

"The perfect match": the very latest in 21st-century railway technology married to the classical poetry of 19th-century Greek revival architecture. This match would have seemed illogical and wrong to Macmillan's generation of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new modernisers. Today, though, the successful and hugely popular renovation of St Pancras station, just down the road from Euston, has proved how well the worlds of magnanimous and dreamlike Victorian architecture work with the age of the super-fast train.

With luck, the arch will soon be fronting a brand new Euston station, replacing the dreary, communist Europe-style steel box that weaseled its way here to coincide with the arrival of the latest (and excellent) blue-and-white electric InterCity expresses of the mid-1960s. Few, I feel, will mourn the passing of this glum, air-terminal design, one in which trains themselves are invisible and there is nowhere to sit to wait for them.

Architects have yet to be chosen for the new terminus, although the property developer British Land, hoping for the gig, has been working with Foreign Office Architects (recently disbanded) and Allies and Morrison on the project. Illustrations revealed a couple of years ago showed a station looking like a cross between Heathrow Terminal 5 and London's Westfield shopping centre. A railway station, however, should be a railway station, and hopefully the architectural ambition of the future terminus will live up to both the drama of the £30bn 250mph High Speed 2 [High Speed 1 runs from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel] and that of the Euston Arch itself.

Meanwhile, the architect Terry Farrell, recently appointed architectural advisor to the mayor of London, has been drawing up a compelling plan to transform London's seedy and dismal Euston Road into a handsome avenue worthy of the new Euston and the revived St Pancras stations.

As for the arch: this is to be rebuilt, at an estimated cost of £10m, with rooms in its ample attic and basement to be fashioned into bars and galleries. Lifts secreted into the end walls will carry visitors up and down Hardwick's Doric tour-de-force.

I have no idea where Gordon Brown or David Cameron stand on architecture, ancient or modern, but I hope they will give every encouragement to a project that might just be one of the finest adventures in urban planning, design, engineering and conservation – all working together – that Britain has witnessed since Macmillan and his ruthless fellow modernisers condemned the much-missed arch nearly 50 years ago. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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