The End of Memory (1970-1980)

If the popularity of the black slab represents the last phase of the Modern Movement, a final, mournful expression to follow the catharsis of new brutalism, it follows that memory as motivation should fade, and that history should re-emerge as inspiration. The emergence of the Post-Modern in the early 1980s seems to represent this development, with its self-conscious, almost apologetic, application of historicist decorative motifs.

Linking these two phases are transitional buildings such as at Euston Station. It can now be seen more fully as a dense example of memorial and historical layering.

Design and construction of the complex lasted from 1968 to 1979. The squat towers, designed by Richard Seifert and Partners, are straightforward exemplars of the headstone-like black slab.

Euston towers

The linking, low-level block, though similar in material and colouring, is different in one aspect: a tentative layer of decoration has been added. It takes the form of deep mullions and lintels, whose front faces are silvery-white, jutting out from the windows; they serve little function save to provide a contrasting relief to the sheer towers. They could be said to provide shade for the offices, but if so, why have they not been used on the towers?

However, if looked at separately from the buildings, this mullion-and-lintel decoration forms a pattern of its own, a sort of noughts-and-crosses grid, or maybe a series of crosses.

Consider now the position of this curious pattern. It serves as a backdrop to the Euston First World War memorial, erected on this site in 1928, towards the end of the mourning phase after the war.

Front, with cross

Given the juxtaposition, it is worth considering that the two are linked semantically as well as by location. For it seems intriguing that the dead soldiers commemorated by the memorial were often buried under simple white crosses – and identical to those which have been added as decoration to the otherwise plain office block. Could it be that, in a final act of commemoration, the graves in which the soldiers were buried throughout north-eastern France, have also been brought home?

euston layers copy

With this possibility in mind, and it is only a possibility, it is now worth changing perspective and stepping physically backwards, back towards the Euston Road, back between the entrance pavilions to the station. These are the only remnants of the Victorian station that were retained after it was demolished in 1962-3.

gatehouse 3

The date is significant. 1962-3 was at the height of the new brutalism and the passion for ‘comprehensive redevelopment’, the years of Britten’s War Requiem, of AJP Taylor’s First World War, of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War. Euston station, a powerhouse of the Victorian age but representing a discredited history, was swept away with such enthusiasm that even its great classical arch could not be saved. As it transpired, the arch turned out not to have been in the way of any redevelopment.

Save for the two pavilions, it was the end of history at the site. Why were these inoffensive relics saved and not the iconic arch? Rather than the architecture, it is worth considering the inscriptions on the cornerstones. These are the names of towns and cities to which trains travelled from Euston (and other stations). They are also the same towns and cities from which Lord Kitchener drew off his Pals’ Battalions to man his new armies in readiness for the battle of the Somme.

gatehouse names

Now the three elements can be seen in conjunction, while also considering that no other buildings have been added to this 100 metre deep and 200 metre wide space in the city. Could it be that this is the final expression of the will of memory? Here, at a place once so representative of the power of the 19th century, we are presented with a tableau of the 20th century: in front, two relics of the past which only survived because they bore the names of cities from which mourning soldiers would come, behind them those same soldiers locked in a timeless sculptural present, standing in commemoration to a war which ended history – represented by an obelisk topped out with a white cross – whose victims lie buried in another country beneath ranks of white crosses which are identical to those, in the final layer here, in the darkened background.

Front, with cross2

Through no conscious intention, rather through the force of subconscious will, could this be the retelling in visual form of the story of Britain’s experience in 1914-18 and its long aftermath? Could this be where memory is laid to rest?

Front, with cross2

And is this the source of memory?