Last week, the winning design of the competition to develop Melbourne’s iconic railway station at Flinders Street was announced, with the contract awarded to Herzog & de Meuron and Australian practice Hassell.
Identified by the barrel-vaulted roofs that will let dappled light illuminate the platform, their big-scale station will also include a public plaza, gallery, marketplace and amphitheatre. Their vision for the station is arguably the softest and most elegant out of the six shortlisted entries. Zaha Hadid and BVN Architecture’s offering looked like an upturned Shinkansen train from one end and a tuning fork from the other. The brick vaults of John Wardle Architects’ collaboration with Grimshaw put gathering places centre stage but perhaps not on the most humane of scales.
At the same time that the winner was announced in Melbourne, mayor of London Boris Johnson was on the other side of the world at King’s Cross, one of the city’s major rail terminals. He was there to mark the 50-day countdown to the unveiling of the last stage of the huge £550m regeneration project. What has gone on at King’s Cross couldn’t be more different from the proposed future of Flinders Street station. Now that it’s finally complete, we see that the key to the success story of King’s Cross has been the destruction of undesirable components rather than the construction of shouty new additions. There are new apartments blocks and offices around the station but the best features of the project have involved simply making do and mending what was already there.
Bringing in art students and academics from Central Saint Martins to a granary factory overlooking the tracks, tidying up two rundown but magnificent hotels for weekenders or those catching a morning train to Paris: these things now give King’s Cross its soul. Imagine if instead that magnificent Charles Dickens-esque view of King’s Cross from behind, looking down the railyway tracks, had been distorted by a Zaha Hadid monolith?
Of course, the area around Flinders Street station is by no means in the same sorry state that King’s Cross once was. But we do wonder what matters more when it comes to the challenge of making the best out of our transportation hubs: bombastic architectural commissions or, quite simply, people.
Tom Morris is Monocle’s design editor.