It's Au Revoir For Piccadilly's Modernist French Railways House

Last Updated 10 July 2024

It's Au Revoir For Piccadilly's Modernist French Railways House
A modernist office building
French Railways House c'est finis? Image: Alex Liivet via creative commons

The 1960s were an inspiriting time for holidaymakers.

In the UK, Blackpool and its ilk were being snubbed for suddenly-affordable package holidays, while another option was to stick your motor on the back of a 'car-sleeper' and have it whisked down to the south of France. Here's an advert for such a service:

The advert for a sleeper car
An advert from 1965, when French Railways House was new on the scene. Image © Reach PLC via the British Library Board.

The address on that ad is French Railways House, the British headquarters for France's state railway, SNCF. "Many holidaymakers remember patiently queuing to book train tickets for their European travels in the chic Perriand designed spaces," Oli Marshall, the Twentieth Century Society's Campaigns Director tells Londonist.

Though no longer occupied by SNCF, French Railways House is still standing on Piccadilly. But only just.

The Crittall-windowed slice of modernist sass — designed by Shaw & Lloyd, with interiors by Charlotte Perriand and triangular projecting 'F-R-A-N-C-E 'signage courtesy of Ernő Goldfinger — opened in 1962. Just looking at a picture of it summons up the strains of Serge Gainsbourg, and gives you a faint nose of Gauloises wafting off your screen.

But if you want to go and admire French Railways House in the flesh, it might already be too late. For years, the building has been given short shrift (the Goldfinger lettering was callously removed a decade ago) and now its demolition is imminent — due to be replaced with an entirely new 'office-led redevelopment' designed by Make for the Great Portland Estates and the Crown Estate, and looking a little something like this:

The new building that will replace French Railways House
Image: Great Portland Estates plc (GPE) and The Crown Estate

This has predictably caused uproar among doyens of architectural heritage over the past few years, with the Financial Times' architecture critic Edwin Heathcote bemoaning: "What a waste [of] embodied energy, memory, fabric and history,"and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman writing in no uncertain terms: "Shit shit shit shit shit, MAKE are replacing the absolutely delightful French Railways House opposite the RA with this pig."

Oli Marshall tells Londonist: "It’s not within our remit to critique the replacement, but a quick look at the replies on Twitter/X will show that many feel it will be a pastiche, faux-trad building that adds nothing to the streetscape of Piccadilly."

"Pig" might seem a touch inordinate; Make's building isn't what you might call ugly, and some commentators have even suggested it's an improvement on what's there now. But do we REALLY need to keep demolishing buildings like Bastion House and M&S on Oxford Street, and aren't we all going to regret it sooner or later?

The Twentieth Century Society — who tried to get French Railways House listed in 2012, a move rejected by Historic England — is beside itself. Oli Marshall tells Londonist: "The existing building could so easily have been upgraded and extended to suit modern office requirements, or even be converted into a hotel — one need look no further than the Standard Hotel in King's Cross, or the newly renovated Space House on Kingsway, to see how.

"With the carbon cost of demolition increasingly unconscionable, the loss of French Railways House is criminally wasteful and wholly unnecessary. When will our disposable building culture end?"

It has been pointed out to us that, because the building's basement will be retained, much of the embodied carbon that would otherwise be released from French Railways House will remain undisturbed. Still, that's small comfort to anyone who's fallen in love with the French beauty over the past 60 years, and that includes us.

As of this week, French Railways House has been photographed in its plastic 'funeral shroud'. The end is near:

It's ironic, when you think about it, that during the jackhammer-toting 1960s, heritage campaigners fought tooth and nail to stop the building of places like French Railways House. Some might call this payback — many others, a crying shame.