Crossrail was hailed as both the best infrastructure project the UK has ever produced and a catalyst for development which is already transforming outer London at an NLA conference on the subject this morning. But the process by which the stations are procured must improve further to allow architects to be free to flex their creative muscles and produce schemes which are places as well as stations.
Those were some of the key points to emerge this morning at Crossrail: unlocking opportunities in Outer London. Crossrail has done some groundbreaking work in integrating stations into the urban realm, said its head of urban integration Sam Richards, and it is the outer London stations – places like Ealing, Abbey Wood, and Hayes, which will see the ‘most transformative change’, when the first stages open next year and into 2018. Richards said key to its successes was Crossrail breaking the rules by stepping outside the ‘red lines’ of sites and designing those areas – 19 in outer London - despite having no funding for them. ‘You can’t design the stations in isolation’, he said. Schemes such as that at Abbey Wood by Fereday Pollard were significantly enhanced by public realm around it provided by Urban Movement, while the importance of smaller scale improvements, such as new paving around Manor Park in Newham, funded by TfL, should not be ignored.
Crossrail is the most important thing to have happened to Ealing since the growth of the borough in the early 20th century, said the borough’s executive director for regeneration and housing, Pat Hayes. ‘It’s an enormous change for us and we’ve gone overnight from being a zone 3-4 borough, effectively to being a zone 1’, he added, regarding improved journey times that are helping to persuade developers to invest, even post-Brexit. Areas like Southall could become the ‘new Brixton’ given the area’s edge, diversity, interest and new accessibility, Hayes added. No-one would have taken the risk to build 4000 homes on the Southall Gasworks site without the catalyst of Crossrail. ‘Overall this is probably the best infrastructure project the UK has ever done’. Amongst several new Crossrail stations opening up the borough to investment and new housing, Ealing Broadway station offered the chance to improve something ‘fairy dire at the moment’, said Hayes, but the first designs presented were reminiscent of a pre-1989 eastern European bus station. ‘We got stuck into Crossrail and said it should have a principal station that looks like one’. The ‘fairly bruising encounter’ paid dividends, with a substantial station that aims to reknit back together a ‘broken’ urban realm, an ‘impressive place and station that can be seen from the Uxbridge Road’.
Bennetts Associates director Julian Lipscombe said that the project ‘got there in the end’ but it was an ‘odd process’. ‘Let me tell you it was bloody difficult to push for quality of buildings at the outset’, he said. The ‘landmark’ scheme aims to ‘speak of quality of place’ and features a grand canopy as ‘part unifier, part gatherer’ announcing the station’s presence, with a good generous ticket hall and clear gate line beyond. ‘It’s fair to say we got there in the end. We’re pleased with the stations, but my word the process could have been better.’ Crossrail ‘get the fact that this is about regeneration’, said Lipscombe, perhaps better than other partners on the project such as Network Rail. Initially the budgets for the stations – Bennetts was involved in four new build schemes including Hayes and Harlington – were ‘hammered to the floor’. Lipscombe said the projects were retendered at every stage attracting ‘suicidally low’ bids from large multidisciplinary practice. But Crossrail listened to the team’s concerns and enabled ‘the shackles to be taken off our design freedoms and budgets’. There is, however, a pervasive ‘penchant’ for separating conceptual design and delivery. ‘I am here firmly with my fingers crossed that what we designed gets built’, said Lipscombe, ‘and I hope the people of west London will like it’.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly