BY Owen Hatherley in Opinion | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

All Change

New railway stations in Belgium and the UK reveal different approaches to utility and excess

BY Owen Hatherley in Opinion | 01 OCT 10

Santiago Calatrava, Exterior of Liege-Guillemins, Belgium. 2009. Photograph: Alain Janssens

The Walloon steel town of Liège in Belgium has finally made it onto tourist itineraries – not because of a titanium-clad museum or concert hall, but as the result of a new railway station, the Liège-Guillemins. This is extraordinary from a British point of view; in the UK, public infrastructure is so battered that even the horribly mean tin sheds at the back of London’s new St Pancras International railway station seem glamorous.

The Spanish architect of Liège-Guillemins (which opened last year), Santiago Calatrava, has long been the first choice for companies – from Dublin to Denver – who want a bridge linking new dockside apartments or entertainment districts. Yet, etiolated and bone-like, his bridges are far less impressive than his stations, the power and majesty of which are as undeniable as their vacuity. What Calatrava excels at is reiterations of structural motifs on a Cyclopean scale that prompt the kitschiest of comparisons – birds, whales and airships, say. He is currently designing the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York (scheduled to be completed in 2013); the architect has been quoted as saying it ‘resembles a bird being released from a child’s hand’.

As critic Douglas Murphy points out, what makes Liège-Guillemins unusual is that it is ‘all roof’. By comparison, when St Pancras station opened in 1868, its vast terminal was disguised behind a Gothic Rathaus that was considered by its architect, George Gilbert Scott, as ‘too good for its purpose’. You can imagine Calatrava, or the architectural tourists he’s trying to attract, saying much the same thing about the cranky, grimy terraces, towers and blast furnaces of Liège. Indeed, some have noted that, with its uneasy status as a wildly expensive project in an impoverished city, it’s preferable to leave from Liège-Guillemins – the gateway is more impressive than the place it gives way to. Yet the station’s unstable combination of excess and utility is deeply seductive.

The city, a socialist stronghold for around a century, makes its own small intervention at the entrance of the station, with an exhibition on the workers who built the monumental structure. It’s a noble and unfashionable gesture – such buildings usually seem to arise out of nowhere, as if untouched by human hands. But Calatrava’s obsessive attention to detail has the same effect – in the exhibition’s photographs, you can see rough steel members being smoothed into something more organic.

This unexpected reminder of working-class labour evokes another model of infrastructure entirely: the underground spaces of the Moscow Metro. Developed in the 1930s by architects including Alexei Dushkin, its extraordinary effects with light and spatial perception were borrowed from cathedrals and Egyptian burial complexes – but space itself was not enough. The vaults were dressed with sculptures of the Metro’s own builders, soon expanded into statues of the Communist youth brigade, mosaics of heroic sailors and more; it became an architecture parlante that transformed the city’s infrastructure into a narrative. Before this, even the greatest of railway stations were unpretentious and undemonstrative. The Moscow Metro made public transport deliberately heroic; somewhere like Liège-Guillemins feels mute by comparison.

Liège is clearly begging for the ‘Bilbao Effect’, the notion that shiny, wilfully irregular architecture will transform the economy of a post-industrial city. Aside from the Guggenheim Museum, however, Bilbao also commissioned Foster + Partners to design an entire metro system, and Calatrava to design a new airport (which is remarkably similar to Liège-Guillemins). By way of comparison, Manchester, the UK’s most fervent chaser after said ‘effect’, has nary an underground station, despite being more than twice the size of the Basque port. The European version of this notion veers uneasily between an expansion of public infrastructure and the enlargement of private enclosures – but the UK has only really seen the latter.

London is too big and too powerful to be fobbed off in quite the same way, so – slowly and incrementally – its public transport is expanding. The Jubilee Line extension of 1999 was the first notable piece of infrastructure to be built in London for 40 years, partaking of the same vastnesses and obsessively worked surfaces of any new European enterprise. Soon after it was finished in 2003, then-Chancellor Gordon Brown ordered the (now-failed) part-privatization of the Tube, as if his Presbyterian instincts were offended by the abundance and generosity of the Jubilee Line extension. Just a few months ago, London got a new piece of infrastructure in the form of the East London Line extension, pieced together by a labyrinthine public-private partnership. Architecturally, it’s abysmal – cheap, nasty and inept. Yet only a few hours away by train from its tinny little canopies, are high-speed trains housed in dizzyingly flamboyant structures, entirely publicly funded. It’s hard, snapping away with everyone else on their camera-phones under the roof of Liège-Guillemins, not to be carried away by it.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).