While most of the talk around 2012’s Olympic architecture has centred on the village itself - notably Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre and the main stadium by Rod Sheard’s Populous - for many visitors to the games, their first real experience of Britain’s ongoing architectural makeover will be the King's Cross station development, currently nearing completion by John McAslan + Partners.
The firm has been working on the project since 1997 when King's Cross was a run down area mainly frequented by the homeless and drug dealers. McAslan's director of urban infrastructure, Hiro Aso, remembers being chased away by two baseball bat-wielding prostitutes on his first reconnaissance visit to the area.
14 years later, King's Cross is two thirds through what is the largest regeneration scheme in Europe. Sixty-seven acres of brown field land is being redeveloped to create 8 million square feet of offices and homes on 20 new streets and 10 squares.
Along with John Pawson's architecture practice, Phaidon itself was one of the first companies to move into the area, closely followed by The Guardian newspaper. Later this year, the prestigious St Martin's Art College moves to a 10-acre site in the area. The new King's Cross terminal, due to open in spring 2012 with full completion of the site the following year, is set to be the most dramatic addition though.
120 million passengers a day are expected to pass through the station in the decade following its completion, making it not only the most important station in the UK but also the biggest transport hub in Europe.
With that thought in mind and with the newly refurbished St Pancras International just over the road you might expect something whizz bang. But, as John McAslan told Phaidon on a recent tour of the site, "We don’t really do iconic."
He's being a little self-effacing. The roof alone, covered in five-and-a-half-million tiles, takes your breath away. The structure is the height of three London double decker buses and the size of 23 tennis courts. McAslan calls the funnel that fans out to support the roof "Saarinen like," a reference to Finnish architect Eero Saarinen’s 1962 Flight Center at JFK Airport.
But the most challenging part of the project has not been the roof or the painstaking refurbishment of the Victorian Northern Station Hotel or the WW2 bomb-damaged ticket hall, nor even navigating the various competing (at times, bickering) factions that govern the area - but instead, keeping the station open and fully operational during the £500 million construction.
"That’s been enormous and included a number of logistical challenges you might not begin to think about," McAslan told Phaidon. One problem apparently necessitated employing 800 extra staff to manage and reduce conflict between construction workers and passengers rushing through the station each day.
Some tourists may be sad to note the absence of the iron handside bridge - better known as the Harry Potter Bridge - which has been replaced with a new lit glass and steel footbridge spanning the station. Platform 9¾ however remains untouched.