J. G. L. Poulson ,1966Cannon Street Station Forecourt
|Borough||City of London|
|Processes||curtain wall, Steel Frame|
Cannon Street Station, or rather the forecourt redevelopment of the 1960s, was the first of a series of commercial buildings erected at great speed by British Rail’s estates department. As part of an economically driven programme of modernisation and rationalisation, BR took on the role of developer and gradually sold or leased-out of any property not required for the purpose of its business. The current Cannon Street block is notorious both for the wilful destruction of a fine Victorian Railway building and for the fate of its unscrupulous architect.
The original station was built in 1866 as the City terminus of the South Eastern Railway. The terminus was characterised by its two Wren-style towers facing onto the river, flanking a huge 108 feet high iron train shed by engineers J. Hawkshaw and J.W. Barry. The train shed was joined in 1867 by E.M. Barry’s Italianate style hotel and forecourt, which provided much of the station’s passenger facilities and an architectural frontispiece onto the street. The arrangement was almost identical to that of its West-end equivalent at Charing Cross.
Cannon Street suffered badly during the war and had long been subject to structural neglect. The station was vital only as part of a southern commuter network. It was deserted off-peak and closed frequently outside of City hours - a pattern that continues to this day. The station’s site within the square mile, proved irresistible to re-development once the first post-war office boom began in the late 1950’s and in 1958 the once magnificent rail shed was demolished. E.M. Barry’s fine, but long redundant hotel (it had been used as offices since 1931) followed in 1960. This was the start of a wave of commercial reconstruction that saw the Victorian structure almost completely consumed.
The current office block by J.G.L Poulson, is a straightforward curtain walled building made up of a steel frame in Portland Stone with navy panels. There is little to remark on its architectural detail except perhaps for the recessed terrace at its skyline and the dismal public space at ground level. Its uncompromising simplicity in certain lights makes it an arresting statement amongst the winding and shifting facades of smaller buildings on Cannon Street. However, this simplicity of form is more readily interpreted as mere utility. Poulson’s block provided BR with a much-needed commercial battery pack fixed onto the raft of an ailing Victorian superstructure.
Rail commuting revenues made little or no money for BR. They were frequently run at a loss for the convenience of the City and London’s economy at large. The switch in traction from steam to electricity and diesel, which began on the Southern region in the 1920’s was complete by the 1960s and freed up vast tracts of railway land for redevelopment. Economy would increasingly dictate design as rebuilding became integral in funding network modernisation. Elsewhere, Poulson was also responsible for a much larger scheme at Waterloo. Elizabeth House, while not affecting the station itself, is a huge development built on railway land in a similarly straightforward manner. It was made possible by the closure of the Necropolis Station and unnecessary sidings. This type of development proved to be precursory to later comprehensive schemes, while Poulson’s ability to win BR’s contracts came under closer scrutiny.
Poulson gained a reputation for a close relationship with those in the nationalised utilities and his architectural firm prospered as a result. During the war, he had become good friends with Graham Tunbridge, a railway employee. When the railways were nationalized Tunbridge would later become Estates and Rating Surveyor for BR’s Southern Region. Poulson used this relationship to win contracts for Cannon Street, Waterloo and later East Croydon Station. He basically provided Tunbridge with a weekly income, apparently £25 a week, in return for building contracts. Poulson’s network of friends extended to many prominent public sector figures. Notable among these were contracts in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne via its notorious Labour council leader T. Dan Smith and a hospital scheme in Malta via shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. His fondness for gifts and consultancies eventually brought him to bankruptcy and it was this that alerted the Inland Revenue of his dubious business practices and also the Metropolitan Police who opened a corruption investigation in 1972. In 1974, Poulson was convicted of fraud and jailed for seven years. The investigation exposed his numerous contacts, including T. Dan Smith, who was also jailed. Poulson was released after one year, still maintaining his innocence, but never recovered any professional credibility. In 1980 he produced an autobiographical account of his life called ‘The Price’ which detailed his version of events. Due to the myriad of high profile people involved and therefore potential for litigation, the account was and still remains a hotly discussed topic in the story of post-war reconstruction.
In 1971, the Cannon Street Station block was joined by a small parade of shops and in 1987 work began on a giant ‘air-rights’ scheme over the platforms to the rear of Poulson’s building. Completed in 1991, the office scheme by the Building Design Partnership (BDP) fills in the space between the side-walls of the Victorian termini, decreasing in height in order to preserve the profile of the wren-style towers and sits on massive piles driven deep into the stations fabric through the platforms. The scheme was typical of its time. The late 1980’s saw yet another boom in the construction of speculative office space and in the City the Pavlovian response was to encourage building wherever possible. It was during this time that BR embraced the concept of ‘air rights’. By allowing development to be carried above the platforms on a raft, it could create a new ground level from which to sell or collect rates from commercial developers. BR could expand its floor space without exceeding its site while maintaining rail services. Several schemes over its termini at Victoria, Fenchurch Street and Charing Cross were developed along this principle. The result is the complete sacrifice of the public realm with little or no regard to the experience of rail users below. The showy office blocks above often only served to highlight the decay of the station beneath.
In 2002, the property company Hines acquired the long-term lease on Poulson’s block from the Marylebone Warwick Balfour Group. Hines has since pressed forward with a long-standing scheme of redevelopment to a plan by Foggo Associates dating from 1996. The new building is essentially a new ‘air rights’ block, but on a bigger scale and raised to such a height that the public space beneath ought to be greatly improved. The strength of the block is derived from a boldly expressed steel mega-structure (much like Exchange House, SOM 1991) that projects over the present forecourt area to meet the approximate building line of Cannon Street and overwhelming slightly, neighbouring Bush Lane House of 1976. The building will extend over the station to meet BDP’s 1991 block to its rear. Hines and Foggo Associates promise that, as well as ‘Class A’ office accommodation, the scheme will include a greatly improved and re-aligned passenger concourse, improved retail provision, ticket office and a new entrance to the Underground station immediately below. The scheme received planning consent in January 2005 and reconstruction is due to begin in late 2007.
Poulson’s Cannon Street block deserves little serious architectural attention, but what is of greater concern is the extent to which London’s rail termini are increasingly overdeveloped and neglected. Cannon Street has been consumed almost entirely by the appetite for commercial reconstruction. With the exception of Liverpool Street, the City presents a dire set of transport interchanges and no plans for improvement or expansion except for those where office or retail space can be easily inserted. One wonders what this will mean in future as the Square Mile presumably intends to expand and the numbers of those entering each day surely to rise.
- Exerpt of Transport Act 1962, , REPORT OF A WORKING PARTY ON THE VICTORIA-GATWICK RAIL LINK, (1979) , p. 12
- London's termini, , Newton Abbot :, (1985)
- The London encyclopaedia, , London :, (1983) , p.112
- John Poulson, , (In Press)
- John Poulson - the price : the autobiography of John Poulson, architect., , London :, (1981)
- Scandal at the regulator, , (In Press)
- London., , The buildings of England, Volume 1, New Haven ; London :, (2002)
- Cannon Place, , (In Press)
- Cannon Street Redevelopment, , (In Press)