Oxford Street’s gateway: squandering the Crossrail opportunity

No one who visits central London can have failed to notice the construction work on Crossrail.  Vast areas have been cleared for new stations at Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Moorgate and Whitechapel; another dock has been drained in Canary Wharf and there’s a big new hole by the Westway.

Of all these locations, Tottenham Court Road is perhaps the most important.  The Central and Northern Lines will intersect with Crossrail here, and the dangerously under-sized old station is being replaced with a state-of-the-art hub; indeed, should Crossrail 2 be built in our lifetimes, it will create a further connection at TCR.

The station sits at what used to be called St Giles Circus, where five major streets (Oxford Street, New Oxford Street, TCR, CXR and St Giles High Street) came together in a cluttered imperial junction.

The construction of Centrepoint in the 1960s gave us a nice little skyscraper, with a lousy junction and appallingly compromised public space at ground level, complete with London’s dumbest fountains.

The architect Terry Farrell was asked to produce a masterplan for the area, which merits your attention as the evenings draw in – you can read it here.  Now, three blocks of respectable but tired background Victoriana, and the art deco grunge pit that was the Astoria (below) have been pulled down, and a new St Giles Circus can emerge from the wreckage.

First, the good news: the old Andrew Borde Street will be pedestrianised, so that Centrepoint finally gets a decent plaza, with wider pavements and some unmissable escalator entrances to the tube station below:

Second, more good news: the Astoria will be replaced by a new performing arts venue, which may not have the ambience of the old, but reinforces the site’s role as a gateway to Soho, Covent Garden and Theatreland.

And now… the bad news.  This is the current proposal for No. One Oxford Street.

Let’s take another look:

No, it’s not good.  It’s not good at all.

Oxford Street is the most important shopping street in Britain.  Its primary intersection, of course, is with Regent Street at Oxford Circus, but the comprehensive redevelopment of the eastern end of the street is – as Farrell acknowledges – an opportunity to repurpose an area that has been shabby and directionless for too long.

There was an opportunity here to peel back the CXR corner and create wider pavements fronting a true “gateway” building.  Being opposite Centrepoint, and surrounded by the architecturally undistinguished, we could have had a short tower (say, 15-20 floors); a big department store or landmark fashion stores; walls of neon (think Ginza) or mad, unique, in-your-face architecture.  This is the young end of Oxford Street; turn left towards Foyles and the bookshops, turn right into the tech-heaven that TCR isn’t, but ought to be.

Instead, developers Derwent have proposed a polite, do-nothing building that might enhance a Bracknell office park, but throws a curtain of cold porridge over the entrance to Oxford Street.  Yes, building over a tube station isn’t the easiest job in the world – but this isn’t good enough – as architecture, as retail, as a national hub – a building here could become a tourist must-visit.  We used to know how to build great “gateway” buildings, and to create urban excitement; now, it seems that timid Westminster has given up requiring anything but the bland.

There are few residents in the immediate area, and it’s residents who usually provoke planners to demand changes – businesses are too busy, too remote, and the rest of us tend not to know what’s happening until a new building appears.  And St Giles Circus sits on the boundary between Westminster and Camden councils, which doesn’t help in coordinated planning of the site.  But should you wish to get in touch with Westminster Council, you can do so through this link.  And – given that this is a matter of London-wide importance (some may say national), it might be worth dropping a note to Boris.  There’s a petition as well – here – which you might add your name to.  I’ve done all three, and I got sensible replies – but more voices are needed.