Cathedrals of steel
A journey from London to Berlin suggests that railway stations are reclaiming the architectural status they enjoyed in the 19th century.
Gavin Stamp, Wednesday, 27th January 2010
Railway termini and hotels are to the nineteenth century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the thirteenth century’, observed The Building News in 1875, in an often repeated quotation. ‘They are truly the only representative buildings we possess.’ Similarly, the great public museum and art gallery buildings we have inherited might be regarded as the temples of the 19th century, but just as they continue to flourish and expand as a building type, so the railway station continues to command attention in the hands of imaginative architects and engineers. Just how good some modern stations can be may be experienced on a trip to Berlin – perhaps to visit the restored Neues Museum (apollo, December 2009) – by train, for no-one who affects to love the art and architecture of our fragile planet should fly if there is an alternative.
If, like me, you are travelling from London, the journey begins, of course, at St Pancras, that supreme Victorian railway cathedral, which, having been seriously threatened with demolition only 40 years ago, has now been so brilliantly restored and adapted as London’s station for the Continent. The great train shed by W.H. Barlow and R.M. Ordish – the largest single-span structure in the world when opened in 1868 – discreetly extended by Alastair Lansley, is now the home of Eurostar trains to Paris and Brussels.
First stop Bruxelles-Midi, or Brussel Zuid, which, compared to St Pancras (or the Gare du Nord in Paris), is a disappointment. It was rebuilt when the brutal project to unite the north and south railways across the city centre, first planned in 1909, was finally completed in 1952, but the experience of changing trains in its largely subterranean spaces is disorientating and dismal. No matter, Belgium’s national railway redeems itself when the Thalys train stops en route at Liège-Guillemins, a brand new station for the capital of Francophone Wallonia (Fig. 1). It was designed
by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish engineer-architect who has established a reputation for taking engineering beyond the utilitarian towards the dynamic, the anthropomorphic and the fantastic. He has already designed stations at Zurich, Lyon and Lisbon, but Liège is surely his best yet. Major 19th-century stations usually combined a train shed with an impressive masonry façade or building. Here, the shed alone matters as a free-standing object, its big, fish-bone-like spans straddling the through-platforms to create tectonic sculpture – a steel cathedral indeed.
On goes the train to Cologne, where the siting of the central station s reflects the worst side of 19th-century railways (although 20th-century motor culture has surely been even more insensitive). The railway crosses the Rhine on a massive ugly bridge that heads straight at the cathedral before swinging to one side as if to avoid demolishing it (Fig. 3). The Hauptbahnhof is right alongside the Dom – a modern cathedral next to a medieval one, as it were. The station created here in 1891-94 by Georg Frentzen and J.E. Jacobsthal had a single big shed over the elevated through platforms (with a gothic pointed-arch section, like St Pancras), but the station building facing the cathedral, complete with a tall tower, was romanesque in style. This piece of Wilhelmine ostentation, like most of Cologne both ancient and modern, was largely destroyed in World War II. The replacement station building of 1957 is an example of that light, elegant functionalism that was almost unknown in the contemporary, demoralised railway sphere in Britain, but the old train shed survives, repaired and simplified, and has recently been sympathetically extended in a gothic style.
From Cologne, a Deutsche Bahn ice train whizzes you to Berlin, which has much to offer as, following Germany’s reunification, its complex railway system has been modernised, improved and enhanced with magnificent new station buildings. A first taste of this comes with the brief stop at the new Berlin-Spandau station, designed by Gerkan, Marg & Partners, a firm founded in Hamburg in 1965 by Volkwin Marg and Meinhard von Gerkan, whose masterpiece – arguably the most impressive new railway station in the world – is the final stop: the new Berlin-Hauptbahnhof.
Despite being the capital of imperial Germany, Berlin had no central station before. As in London, railways came into the city from both north and south to arrive at separate termini. The only through route was the elevated east-west line, opened in 1882. From Potsdam and Charlottenburg in the west, it crosses and recrosses the Spree to snake behind the Reichstag and traverse the Museumsinsel (cutting between the Wilhelm Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum – so exciting for the architectural historian who likes railways) to reach the station for Silesia and destinations east. This line now forms the uppermost storey of what is the thrillingly multi-layered new station (Fig. 2), whose bottom layer is in a deep cutting for a new north-south main line that runs in a tunnel under the Tiergarten. In between are three levels of circulation space, shops and cafés. In all, there is 70,000 square metres of floor space within a single, if complex, volume, in which it is possible to see from top to bottom past banks of escalators and glazed lift shafts.
The key to the functional and topographical success of the new Hauptbahnhof is this new railway crossroads. It is located where the old Lehrter Bahn- hof was sited, close to the east-west S-Bahn viaduct, a little north of the Spree and the Reichstag. Opened in 1871, this grand terminus was built for trains from Hanover and became the most important of Berlin’s stations (the nearby Hamburg station, closed in 1884, is now Berlin’s Museum für Gegenwart). However, with the division of Germany and of Berlin, the station became redundant. It was closed in 1952 and the remains of the badly bombed station demolished seven years later. Only the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof survived amidst desolation, the last stop on the east- west line before the Berlin Wall and the Soviet sector.
With reunification, the opportunity was seized to realise a plan first mooted in 1910 to link the city’s north and south railway systems. And the Lehrter Bahnhof site, derelict, but with obvious railway potential, was the place to make a central station at long last. Work on the Hauptbahnhof began in 1998 and was completed four years ago. Berlin now is surely the most rewarding of cities both for urban railways and railway architecture both new and old – what with the many surviving U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations – but the Hauptbahnhof is the greatest triumph. What is impressive is the structurally lucid and spatially comprehensible way in which five separate levels are articulated; what is thrilling is to enter at street level and to see express trains moving east-west overhead but within the enclosed space and then to look down and see north-south trains far below, as they emerge from under the Tiergarten and river.
The whole complex is covered by a high-level train shed of steel and glass. Incorporating 85 kilometers of steel cable to hold the roof steady in high wind, this is an entirely modern structure, yet, with its elliptical spans, it is clearly in the great tradition of train sheds. A 321-metre-long curving shed over the high-level east west platforms intersects with a shorter arched shed covering the station from north to south, creating – as at Brunel’s Paddington a century and a half earlier – a metallic groin vault. So the cathedral analogy becomes irresistible – as is the thought that the railway station, and not the airport, can be the representative building of the 21st century as well as of the 19th.
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