Beneath the streets of Soho – Tottenham Court Road Station, London

The new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road has platforms almost twice the length of an Underground station plus curvy white cladding that wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi movie. Stephen Cousins got a sneak peek at the advancing construction work.

Tottenham Court Road is arguably the most complex and challenging of the 10 new stations being constructed for Crossrail. Occupying a subterranean area the length of three football pitches, between Soho’s Dean Street and Charing Cross Road, and running directly below Soho Square, it extends down five storeys underground.

The £1bn project involves the construction of a major new underground station and ticket hall on Dean Street to the west, and a second integrated ticket hall below St Giles Circus, to the east, at the intersection of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road.

The integrated ticket hall will be six times larger that the site’s original London Underground station, featuring a vast new public plaza with station entrances below the iconic modernist Centre Point tower. This vital new area of urban realm is designed to absorb the circa 200,000 people expected to use the station each day when the Elizabeth Line goes live in 2018 – a 50 per cent increase on today.

The western ticket hall will sink to a depth of around 25 metres and feature a decadent black and gold interior designed to evoke the thriving night-time economy of Soho.

The station’s 234 metre-long curved platforms will dwarf those on the London Underground, which measure just 130 metres on the Central Line at Tottenham Court Road. The 10 metre diameter tunnels will be on a scale to rival those on Hong Kong’s huge MTR Metro system.

“Londoners do not know what is going to hit them, the scale of this project is enormous. I think most people are expecting another Jubilee line, but this is immense,” says Harbinder Singh Birdi, partner at lead architect Hawkins\Brown, who has been working on the design for the past seven and a half years.

The £14.8bn Crossrail project is the largest infrastructure project currently underway in Europe. Civils works are due to complete at the end of 2017 and the central section of the line, running between Custom House and Paddington, is expected to begin operation by late 2018.

Tottenham Court Road Station was designed by Hawkins\Brown in collaboration with Crossrail, London Underground and consulting engineers Arup, Atkins and Halcrow. Construction is being carried out by main contractor Laing O’Rourke. It is one of three stations being designed by Hawkins\Brown, the others being Liverpool Street and Bond Street.

The existing Underground station at St Giles’ Circus was the first to be improved as part of a phased upgrade, including a new ticket hall, new banks of escalators and entrances. The requirement to integrate Crossrail with connections to the existing Northern and Central lines ramped up the complexity.

Ticket hall

Roughly 70 per cent of all people using Tottenham Court Road Crossrail will pass through this main ticket hall. A key reason is to encourage people to use the exit to walk to Covent Garden, where the Underground station is close to capacity and unable to expand due to its Grade II-listed status.

Singh Birdi comments:

“Rather than have Covent Garden fall to its knees because so many people are using it, the whole area around Centre Point is being pedestrianised to enable easy access to the area on foot.”

The interiors of the eastern ticket hall are light and bright, taking cues from the Centre Point building and other ‘60s architecture above ground. The local neighbourhood’s heavily gridded plan is reflected in an exposed structural soffit, with large concrete downstand beams.

The spaces between the beams are peppered with bespoke drum-shaped light fittings that incorporate acoustic absorbers, to reduce noise and echo. The fittings reference theatre-style lighting and are used within the Crossrail concourse, as well as in the western ticket hall.

A tradition for integrated art at Tottenham Court Road station is continued in the ticket hall where walls are covered with colourful and monochrome artworks by French artist Daniel Buren. In addition, the concrete soffit forming ceiling of one of the eastern escalator boxes will be covered by an applied gold-leaf artwork by Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright.

Singh Birdi comments:

“Wright felt that people in London rush around too much, he wanted to create a place where people can slow down and dwell. The artwork is intended to dematerialise the concrete and encourage passengers to reach up and touch it.” Artwork by fellow Turner Prize-winner Douglas Gordon will feature at the Soho-side station entrance.

Concourse & tunnels

As passengers descend the escalators, a ‘tide mark’ defines the transition from the main

ticket hall into the concourse and tunnels. The lower levels are defined by a limited palette of common materials used throughout Crossrail, such precast concrete, glass, anodised aluminium, stainless steel, and glass fibre reinforced cement (GFRC). These naturally self-finished materials are durable, robust and require little maintenance.

The GFRC panels on the escalator walls are slim – just 40 mm thick compared to around 120 mm for a precast concrete equivalent – and perforated with small holes to aid acoustic absorption. Curved versions of the panels, both solid and perforated, are used in the passageways and on platform walls. A total of 50,000 m2 of GFRC, equivalent to seven football pitches, will be used on Crossrail as a whole.

“The GFRC is a device to make it quite evident you are entering Crossrail. In terms of legibility and wayfinding we wanted to characterise what was London Underground and what was Crossrail,” says Singh Birdi.

The panels flow around geometrically complex curved junctions between passageways, a form made possible by the sprayed-concrete tunnel construction technique. There are no sharp angles and the lining panels fit tight to the tunnel walls on a secondary subframe.

It was a laborious exercise to computer model the panels, says Julian Robinson, head of architecture for Crossrail:

“It was very complex working through all the geometries, with tunnelling you must deal with non-standard geometries, where the tunnel has to shift position to avoid an obstacle. That creates a number of unique conditions that require unique panel shapes.”

Apart from the cladding, a common set of parts  – for seating, signage, communications and fire safety equipment, handrails, screens, and escalators etc – is used throughout Crossrail’s central London stations. The intention is to de-clutter spaces, enhance passenger navigation and create a cool, restrained aesthetic.

The robust, durable materials strongly contribute to the project’s BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating. Sustainability was always high on the design agenda, during tunnelling works, all excavated waste was moved to Wallasea Island, off the Essex coast, to create a bird sanctuary.

The station is lit entirely using LED luminaires and is mostly naturally ventilated. Under-platform vents channel hot air produced by trains to the ends of platforms, and up through massive ventilation shafts, installed inside new buildings constructed above ground at Dean Street and Charing Cross Road. The hot air will be sucked out by huge 9.5 tonne fans, in constant operation at ground level.

Robinson comments:

“We have space-proofed the scheme to include forced air ventilation with a cooled component in future, but that will not be needed from day one because the system will not have the inherent built up heat.”

The project is future-proofed to premit the future intersection of the Crossrail 2 project, which will intersect through the mid-section of the concourse tunnels. Tenders for the work will be launched soon. Four architects will design the £32bn project, which is worth more than double the current Crossrail.

Above ground

Emerging from the tunnels at the Western end of Tottenham Court Road station, people will pass below new residential blocks, on a scale appropriate to the domestic scale and tradition of Soho.

Hawkins\Brown designed the block directly over the station, which uses the same black and gold aesthetic seen inside the ticket hall. The facades will feature black reconstituted stone cladding with projecting window reveals and pleated gold anodised patterned aluminium spandrel panels.

As construction of the station progresses, the mechanical and electrical fit out and installation of the GFRC panels in the platforms are underway. Leading up to Christmas, at ground level, the construction team will be focused on utilities installation, which will involve a significant period of breaking-out. Meanwhile, installation of the permanent tunnel ventilation equipment is underway.

The project is at a critical phase as it transitions from a major civils project to a major fit out project, requiring effective integration of multiple systems and contractors. In other words, the ‘skeleton’ is now in place, but the heart, lungs, nerves and everything else must be fully coordinated and installed.

Then will come the wider task of connecting this station up with the other nine new stations, and all their related systems. Systems integration is the biggest risk factor on any mega-project of this scale.

The level of coordination and expertise required to build the Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road is mind-boggling, a fact that will not be immediately apparent to the public when the station opens. Robinson comments:

“The public will be wowed by the elegance of the finished station, but they will not be aware of the incredibly complex journey required to get there, which has involved lots of hard work with everyone working together to create a great passenger experience. This is truly the next step forward for transport infrastructure in London,” he concludes.