Station to station

A visitor’s first and last impression of a town or city will often be formed by its rail station so it’s vital they are beautiful in both form and function. We can learn from the examples in some of continental Europe’s cities

On a tour of European station architecture recently, I was reminded of the quote: “My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage, but greater and better than when I received it”.

The importance of a building adding to the soul of a place rather than diminishing it is something architects have a duty to do, but there is even more pressure when designing a station, since it’s often a visitor’s first and last impression of a town or city. Beautifully designed stations offer a sense of arrival and a clear public realm, with obvious precedents ranging from the generosity and grandeur of the Grand Central Terminal in New York to the green and exotic Atocha in Madrid.

When it comes to newer stations, Europe offers plenty of inspiration. The tour took in stations from Rotterdam, Breda, Utrecht, Antwerp and Liège: a whistle-stop education in how – and how not – to design a train station. The successful ones relied on a combination of a clear brief, a strong client vision (led by someone there for the long run), a talented architect and consultant team, and buy-in from stakeholders and the local authority.

Rotterdam and Breda stations were both exemplars of the beautiful ordinary, something that I hope we can aspire to, and they were also delivered for eye-wateringly small sums of money.

Rotterdam Central delights and uplifts through the simplicity of design and clever detailing, and offers the generosity of an expansive and shared public space, which is used by the city for free events such as concerts and art installations. Breda masterfully combines housing, offices, shopping and a station into a building at ease in its context.

The importance of a building adding to the soul of a place rather than diminishing it is something architects have a duty to do, but there is even more pressure when designing a station

By comparison, Liège takes your breath away on arrival with its vast and awe-inspiring scale and excess, but the heady shot of delight soon vanishes when at the human scale. No benches, poor way-finding and filthy surfaces are the result of a station that is almost impossible to clean.

It is a price too high to pay for a passing moment of wonder. The time for such extravagance will, I hope, soon prove to be an out-dated model.

The UK cannot afford to make such gestures or mistakes. What it can, and should do, is what it is good at: combine wonderful pragmatism with the joys of what comes for free (namely, space, light and views). We have the ability and the willingness; what we have to do is to make sure that we build the mechanisms and structures to allow it to happen.

There is much to applaud in relation to devolution and a shift of power away from Westminster, yet years of centralised government have led to depleted and often ineffectual regional governance. Schemes as big and as important as HS2 need to be guided and critiqued by external forces.

This in part is the job of bodies such as the independent design panel for HS2, which I chair, but in the end it will be down to the local authorities which will approve (or not) the quality of design through the planning process. Good local governance, coupled with clear and visionary local plans, will therefore be essential in delivering the excellence we are capable of in our infrastructure projects.

I fear I am pointing out the obvious, but I still come across projects with huge potential let down by the egos and intransigence of those involved

We also have to understand that collaboration and the mutual respect of all those involved in a project ultimately makes the difference between success and failure. Co-ordinating a complex list of interested parties is quite a challenge, especially when faced with an organogram that looks like a plate of spaghetti, but it is the holding together of what is often a series of fragile inter-relationships that is crucial to achieving a great building, as opposed to a dinner for the dog. I fear I am pointing out the obvious, but I still come across projects with huge potential let down by the egos and intransigence of those involved.

As we as a country move into a decade where many big infrastructure projects are to be designed, delivered and built, it is incumbent on us all to make sure that we make buildings that add to the life of our cities: that are fit for purpose, designed for the needs of all, and are not wasteful of the world’s resources but use every ingredient to the maximum.

They must also fit within their environs, which doesn’t mean they should be bland or banal – they can be magnificent and beautiful as well as contextual.

So how do we create the space and governance for great projects to happen, when structure and leadership is something at a regional level we are lacking? Putting aside the individual egos and learning to work together to achieve the best outcome would be a good start. That and making sure that decisions are made by a group of people that reflects the wonderful and enriching diversity of our whole nation. On my recent fact-finding tours, the best projects we visited have nearly always had women at the heart of the decision-making process. Coincidence?

Or something we could all reflect upon?

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 design panel chair and sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission

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