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High Speed | Station to Station essay on design

As a dubious reward for my 14-year-old daughter, Thora, spending her Easter holidays in a French school, I took her on a quick tour of European railway stations.

Our practice had recently begun designing Old Oak Common station for High Speed 2 (HS2); a new station to provide interchange between HS2 and Crossrail and with predicted passengers of 250,000 per day, it will be as busy as Waterloo.  Initially constructed in the middle of railway lands, it will ultimately be at the heart of a new quarter of London as planned by the Mayoral development corporation, the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC). 

As well as taking my daughter on a well-earned break, I wanted to get a feel for how other European cities had tackled the issues of new high-speed stations on the edge of towns.

So as part of our 10-day inter-railing trip we took in Lille in France, Liège in Belgium and Berlin in Germany.

lille high speed

Lille high speed station

Lille High Speed station: Helped to regenerate the town centre

Lille is perhaps a well-known story – how northern French towns competed to have high speed rail pass through their constituency as part of a drive for regeneration.  Contrast this to High Speed 1 through Kent where the route was designed to minimise demolition and nuisance and Ebbsfleet garden city is still on the drawing board.

I previously had the benefit of a tour by Lille city council where it explained its approach to the project. What was striking was the way the whole regeneration project was led by a co-ordinated government approach as part of a public private partnership. Rem Koolhaas was selected as master-planner of a new urban quarter, “Euralille”. As well as the station, the masterplan included: residential and commercial development around and over the station; new roads and public realm linking to the town centre and Lille Flanders station and a large shopping and commercial centre between the two stations.

It’s difficult to imagine that the two office buildings that span the station would survive a UK Treasury business case analysis. But they do lend activity and an urban counterpoint to the station, which would otherwise take a 400m long slice through this new part of town. This highlights one of the issues of high speed stations: the sheer size is difficult to handle within conventional city blocks.  Even US-sized city blocks, such as at Canary Wharf, generally less than 100m wide, are of a completely different scale. 

lille sketch

Lille sketch

Naybour’s sketch of Lille station

On balance, the masterplan does a reasonable job, making clever use of levels across the site to form a coherent connection with the town and creating a place based around a new civic space. This is particularly so when we consider that Lille is struggling with post-industrial decline and does not naturally command high rents and commercial desirability.

Another clear target of our European visit was Berlin’s recently completed Hauptbahnhof: coincidentally handling about the same number of passengers as Old Oak Common will, and principally an interchange between north-south and east-west lines. It is typical of the German approach of building through-stations within cities.

In contrast to the UK the continent builds few termini. This could be a natural response to the geography of Europe but even Manchester, en-route to Liverpool or Scotland, built its grandest stations as termini. And HS2 is building no fewer than four city termini: Euston; Curzon Street; Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds.

Although Hauptbahnhof translates as Central Station, it is actually built in an uninhabited and undeveloped area of the city next to the port on the River Spree.

The station stacks major rail lines on top of one another in a cruciform plan, like stacking firewood. The lowest lines are below ground in a box and the uppermost on viaducts 25m or so above.

The main passenger circulation follows the cruciform plan and is topped by a glazed roof of two intersecting arches with a clear span of about 85m each. The roof is an essay of complex glass engineering design and construction by Austrian glass specialist Seele, working with the architect Gerkan Marg & Partners. It is a modern railway cathedral reminiscent of the great 19th century stations. The light and generosity of space make this a pleasant place in which to move around and spend time.  

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Berlin Hauptbahnhof: Cruciform station at the junction of two major rail routes

The other key move is to include intermediate levels of retail between ground level entrances and the upper and lower tracks creating five levels in total. The retail on these levels creates a real sense of place. Like at Lille, office buildings span the station, giving a total of about 44,000m2 of commercial space and support the activity within the station.

This is important because the development immediately surrounding the station has yet to arrive. Obviously, the station is an embodiment of faith in German unification but the key lesson for me is that the station creates a successful sense of place out of the prosaic requirement to change trains.  

berlin sketch

berlin sketch

Naybour’s sketch of Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Old Oak Common will need to achieve something similar if it is to successfully seed-corn the development of the OPDC. Ultimately I would expect the station concourses in Berlin and Old Oak Common to act as the central public realm of a new community. This is appropriate, as stations are among the few public buildings in which people of all types come together in their daily lives. 

Among a string of buildings and stations we took in on our way home was the recently completed high-speed station at Liège.

Among a string of buildings and stations we took in on our way home was the recently completed high-speed station at Liège. The new station is built adjacent to and replaces the existing station. Unlike the other two it does not sit at the heart of a development site. Rather it addresses the existing town across the Place de la Guillemins.

Liege high speed station

Liege high speed station

Liege: Elegant town centre focus

Tracks are on a viaduct and the station nestles against a steep hill. The levels are resolved supremely elegantly forging new connections and overcoming longstanding severance of the old station. Vehicle access and considerable parking provision (with easy access to the E25 motorway) is cut into the hill and passengers move down onto the platforms via pedestrian bridges. The bridges and platform level concourse provide level access between existing parkland and housing areas to the south of the station.

Steps down from the concourse to the Place de la Guillemins lend the station a civic air, whilst a level entrance from the square passes beneath the tracks and up to the platforms via lift and stairs. The whole structure is beautifully and elegantly composed by Calatrava in his inimitable architectural and engineering style. A 160m clear span roof runs parallel with the tracks creating a sweeping arch to face the town centre. The bridges, platforms and under-passage form integral parts of a sinuous, white, organic structural whole. For me the key lesson is that sheer architectural and engineering elegance is critically important, whether putting an existing town back on the map or creating new places to attract people and investment.

liege sketch

Liege sketch

Naybour’s sketch of Liege station

So, what of my 14-year-old daughter in all of this? Whilst feigning complete indifference, Thora nevertheless enjoyed the ease and efficiency of the Deutsche Bahn network and stations. We could happily spent time waiting and shopping in Berlin’s Central Station. But when we got out of the train at Liege, she immediately exclaimed ‘Now that’s what a station should be like’. Two hours later, having thoroughly explored and browsed Tin-tin books in an elegant shop in the station underpass, she was still impressed. Sometimes it takes the brutal honesty of an adolescent to remind us of the potential of these massive engineering projects to simply delight.

  • Rob Naybour is a partner with WestonWilliamson & Partners.

 

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • As a user of Liege station twice last year, I can't agree with the Naybour family that it's "what a station should be like". It is architecturally stupendous but a failure as a station. With almost no seating, inadequate food outlets, lengthy pedestrian routes, slow lifts, and negligible shelter from wind, I spent an uncomfortable hour there (x2) waiting for a connection. I was able to spend my time admiring the architecture and cursing the lack of practicality. To read that it was designed by Calatrava makes it even more disappointing - looks great, not nice to use.

    Old Oak Common needs to be considerably better than this.

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