Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

and maintenance facilities for the fleet of road vehicles that serviced the goods yard. The main building, of elongated triangular plan with cantilevered floors, ribbon windows and prominent chimneys, is clad in cream mosaic. It is linked at right angles to a garage block of racetrack plan with an ingenious structural system in which two dozen angled concrete beams balance between perimeter wall and central hub, creating a column-free interior and a hidden clerestory window. Derelict for years before being listed Grade II and restored by AHMM for Monsoon, the pair make a striking composition nestled between canal and elevated motorway and are now occupied – as the Rotunda and the Battleship Building – by the Nissan Europe Design Studio (with further alterations by Tate and Hindle, 2002-03) and Rapier, an advertising agency.

Furthest west, then, on the site of the goods yard, is the most impressive element of the new Waterside scheme, PaddingtonCentral. It is centred on the roughly triangular Sheldon Square, a sunken piazza whose eastern side is terraced into a series of curved grassed steps that form a large amphitheatre facing shops. The surrounding buildings are by Sidell Gibson and include offices, apartments, more shops, restaurants and leisure facilities. The two residential blocks are perhaps the weakest, with thin stone decorations. The two office blocks are more muscular.

This portion of the development is extended along a new thoroughfare, Kingdom Street, built on an elevated deck that suspends it between road and rail ways. The street is flanked by two office blocks, One Kingdom Street by Sheppard Robson (2008) and Two Kingdom Street by Kohn Pedersen Fox (2010), that differ mostly in their cladding treatments. The former has glass fins whose colouring appears to change the hue of the building, depending on the angle of approach, whilst the latter uses a more classic, International Modernist treatment of narrow, channelled mullions. Number Three Kingdom Street is the Novotel London Paddington, by Dexter Moren Associates and Kohn Pederson Fox, 2008. Two final parcels of ‘land’ await their turn, perched at the end of the deck overlooking the Westway. In 2010, Westminster approved a square 10-storey block at Four Kingdom Street and a circular 13-storey tower at Five Kingdom Street by Allies and Morrison.

The buildings of PaddingtonCentral are efficient and bland, but the created setting and attention to detail are winning. The deep sculpted bowl of the amphitheatre is revealed suddenly and unexpectedly. It is ringed by beautifully crafted walls of stone with metal handrails on the upper levels, this and the light standards evoking a New Roman atmosphere. There is an elegantly-handled transition between lower, upper and road levels, through a stair wound tightly around a glass-capped lift pavilion covered in smoothed stone. A new footbridge spans the canal, with new seating.

In Kingdom Street what attracts is not the slick facades of the buildings but the quality of the hard and soft landscaping in between. The street is narrow and rises as it moves west, requiring an intricate interplay of steps and gentle slopes. All is executed in paving that could have been dull but is actually fascinating in its precision and variety. Junctions and details are marked with tiny square planters, each with their own tuft of immaculately manicured box hedge, with much larger raised beds stepping down either side of the street. Fine street furniture assists.

The new Bishop’s Bridge Road, a massive single span in concrete and steel, links PaddingtonCentral to the station. Brunel’s 1839 cast iron bridge over the canal was rediscovered during construction, preserved intact within a brick facing and with its components held together by gravity, as he intended. There are plans to reconstruct it as a pedestrian bridge over the canal.

Paddington station forms the second side of the site’s triangle. Brunel was assisted by Matthew Digby Wyatt and Owen Jones to build this, one of the least-appreciated London termini, between 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, and 1854. The station was planned as the London terminus of Brunel’s broad-gauge GWR to Bristol; passengers to New York would there board his steamship Great Eastern for the Atlantic crossing. Unusually, passengers can enter half way along the departure platforms or at the head of the station. Three sheds with glazing and intricate ironwork were supplemented by a fourth in 1914. A sumptuous Royal Suite was provided.

Every railway termini must have a hotel, and the Hilton London Paddington was once the Great Western Hotel, by Philip Charles Hardwick, son of Philip Hardwick, designer of the Euston Arch. It was refurbished in the 1930s, acquiring Deco lamp standards and interiors, and again in the 2000s. At some point the basement area was paved over for a cab road.

The sheer size of the GWR’s operation is shown by the erection, in around 1935, of three new buildings in the area to house general offices, an estate office and a stationery store. Company architect P. E. Culverhouse designed all of these in a Deco style. The office extension, behind the hotel, features scalloped external uplighters and a vast frieze of the company’s name. Enterprise House, the estate office, is a stripped classical, metal-spandrelled white wedge squeezed onto the thinnest of sites perched perilously above the tracks in Westbourne Terrace.

Interventions at the station by Grimshaw Architects in 1999 accommodated the Heathrow Express private venture rail shuttle, removed clutter, refurbished and updated circulation areas and improved views. Weston Williamson is now adding a Crossrail station below Eastbourne Terrace.

Only at the final leg of the triangle, running along Praed Street, does a mote appear to obscure the Paddington developers’ shiny vision. Paddington’s de facto high street is a hard, bustling, scrappy collection of buildings from every decade of the last few centuries, impacted regularly by thousands of transient users of the station. The presence of a now-closed post office with a depot to the rear is proving problematic to completion of the Waterside scheme, though nowhere near as intractable as the disastrous Paddington Health Campus saga. This sought to re-build the prestigious but run-down St Mary’s as a home for itself and two other hospitals plus research facilities for academic partner Imperial College London. It was abandoned after continuing uncertainty over cost, size and location within the basin site. The hospital has left a fascinating built legacy in any event, from the severe brick and simple punched windows of the boxy 1987 Queen Mother extension back through the restrained Modernism of the inter-war nurses’ home and medical school in brick with stone dressings (note the owl) to the Victorian original.

So, what to make of this new London ‘quarter’, to use the developers’ favourite term for such endeavours?

Paddington Waterside is still maturing – even Canary Wharf, that great intruder, is nearly a generation old. It is being promoted as a new part of central London, becoming part of the capital once more. But this is disingenuous. In a city of subtle demarcations, Paddington has always been an edge location, too close to the western suburbs to be truly central. Kingdom Street is, quite literally, a road to nowhere, unlikely to ever connect to its surroundings without prodigious feats of engineering.

The new architecture is typical of its time and type – Developers’ Discreet, perhaps – with little to adapt or connect it to the specifics of its location. The buildings mostly present sheer glass walls to each side, with little local or fresh or different. This timidity is disappointing given the area’s rich history, let alone the gift of acres of water to respond to. Something positive is found in the soft and hard landscaping throughout the development, and the sympathetic and effective handling of the change of land levels around Sheldon Square.

The real clue to the development’s strength, though, comes from a peek through a window in the hoardings erected around the end of Kingdom Street.

Undulating its way into the heat haze is the seemingly endless Ballardian ribbon of the Westway. Its forty-year-old certainty has become a historical dead-end. Wander around the backs of the Kingdom Street blocks and another previous future is apparent, laid out below ground level but open to the sky: the broad swathe of the cutting to Paddington station, ruled with steel rails and strung with catenary wire. And in the opposite direction, a stroll between two other buildings brings one to the canal, running above the rail lines but under the Westway snaking over it.

It is the topography of the locale that provides the key to unlocking the specificity of Paddington Waterside, a specificity that exists not only in its architecture but in the three centuries of transport threaded through it, in way not found elsewhere in London.

The canal is the least intrusive layer of this conjunction, with its calm lapping tranquillity passing eighteenth century stuccoed villas and twenty-first century glass offices alike. New bridges spiral across it and restored towpaths bracket it. The railway lies thrillingly close, thrumming and rattling. It defines half of the development but also half the local area. Three levels of roadway including the underside of the Westway string the old maintenance depot around like spaghetti. And there are some wonderful, vertiginous views through all of this, past bridges, bases, pillars, highways and columns, a Piranesian world allowing glimpses of sky sliced up like a pop-art collage.

And so it seems that there is a particular sense of place at Paddington Waterside, but it is a sense formed by the accretion of past glories allied to the topography of the land. It is for today’s makers of space to continue it.

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The former Paddington British Rail Maintenance Depot is revealed only in fragmentary views, so close is it to the Westway and canal

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Sheldon Square with offices on the left and flats on the right

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The influence of post-war American practice is detectable in Two Kingdom Street by Kohn Pedersen Fox

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