Journal 476 was published last month with its theme of Connections. (You can buy a copy here - 100 pages of top quality writing and photography, book reviews, reportage and London history.)
Here we take the theme literally - with Ezra Groskin of Moxon Architects explaining how his practice was involved with two new bridges at Kings Cross.
While ‘life as we know it’ has been on hold for the past two years, our city has continued to evolve around us; in some realms, the rate of change even seems to be accelerating. Most of us have spent more time exploring our neighbourhoods, expanding our wander range in the search for fresh public spaces.
As restrictions loosened, we found ourselves re-emerging into a city finally ready to support alternative modes of travel. Bike lanes seemed to appear overnight while low-traffic neighbourhoods and the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone are actively making driving less appealing. On top of this is a reluctance to use public transport unnecessarily during these uncertain times. As urbanists we can hope that these factors will continue to shape our city and our attitudes as the silver lining to a difficult couple of years. Two outcomes I’m embracing as a bridge designer are:
• The expansion of non-vehicular travel networks; and
• Strengthening local public realms as neighbourhood anchors
Our practice, Moxon Architects, has been fortunate to design and build two bridges in close proximity in central London within a short period of time. Both bridges span the Regent’s Canal in the nearly complete King’s Cross development just to the north of the transport hub. Despite being designed by the same team for the same client, the two bridges are markedly different and demonstrate the two post pandemic themes stated above.
King’s Cross is a fascinating area that, despite being so central, was remarkably undeveloped until just a decade ago. The railway lines and canal that were central to its industrial past give the area its character, but also divide and isolate. The Regent’s Canal divides the site into north and south while the multiple railway lines serving King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations are a barrier to east-west traffic. It’s ironic that these longer distance transport arteries linking London to Europe and the rest of the country, cut it off from its immediate surroundings. These connection challenges that kept the land semi-derelict for a generation meant that development would need to be well considered and wholesale to be viable in the current political and economic climate.
Designed by Arup and Moxon, Somers Town Bridge was completed in 2017. It spans the canal connecting King’s Cross’s Coal Drops Yard podium with Somers Town’s Camley Street and its Natural Park to the west. More importantly it completes an east-west route, essentially connecting Islington to Camden via King’s Cross. The project negotiates a significant level change resulting in a skewed and sloped bridge leading into a curving path that hugs the site boundary to achieve a comfortable gradient. The pedestrian and cyclist bridge is very much an ‘A to B’ connector with a modest yet elegantly efficient articulation. The long and narrow deck and enclosing upstand sides allow you to take in the view but mainly encourage onward movement. From the surroundings the slender bridge form reads as a line stretching between two ends. The environment is rich, and it slots in nicely. While the stealthy underbelly recedes into shadow, the polished top flange arcs from end to end below the enclosing parapet. The bridge is only half of this east- west connection as the route guides you all the way to Camley Street with planting and fences. While new residents inevitably bene t from this bridge, it serves the larger role of a greener, safer route over and under the rail corridor entering our city from the north.
To the east of Somers Town Bridge the team’s sequel for the client, developer Argent, is the recently completed Esperance Bridge. Also a component of the original masterplan, this bridge had an entirely different brief requiring a different response. Here the goal was to strengthen an existing connection and improve flow over the canal. With an existing canal crossing 50m to the east, this bridge increases overall permeability and is more about placemaking than route creation. The pair of bridges cater to users approaching from all directions. The new structure carefully extends the distinct porphyry paving of Granary Square encouraging the free flow of people over the canal. Frequent observation shows that the experience of those crossing the bridge falls into two categories. Some walk over it almost accidentally, maintaining conversations with friends or eye contact on screens, ending up in a new locale before they know it. Others slow down to engage with the structure, running their hands along the lean rail, seeming to appreciate its dynamism and the context it sits within.
The second aspect of the Esperance Bridge brief was to create a memorable wayfinding device that could orient users during the day and night. With this in mind, the team developed an intentionally expressive structure. In homage to its Victorian predecessors a reliable truss was selected as an efficient and functional means to span the 25m gap. The typically humble form was elevated far beyond expectations, pushing the limit of design and fabrication. The result is a sculptural form that compliments its surroundings while also catching the eye. The Esperance Bridge plays a larger civic role by completing the adjacent Ghats Steps urban theatre, serving as both an enclosure and flanking balcony to canal-side events below. As the number of residents and visitors continues to increase within this pedestrian-focused district, the public realm or connective tissue will remain a primary defining feature.
Both Somers Town Bridge and Esperance Bridge illustrate the importance of non- vehicular travel networks within our evolving city. They both benefited from an enlightened client willing to invest in design and craft. Bridges are uniquely accessible elements within the public domain. They can be places and objects simultaneously. While they rely on the same factors that de ne other spaces such as scale, proportion and level of enclosure, they do so in a self-sufficient manner – they do not rely on a range of different elements. At King’s Cross the bridges convey the spirit of a neighbourhood and with a century plus design life, have the potential to define it well into the future.
(You can download the original article - with photographs of the bridges - here).
And you can get your copy of Journal 476 here.