In W G Sebald’s book, Austerlitz, the eponymous hero is first encountered in the precincts of this fabulous railway station. The narrator and his new acquaintance, Austerlitz discuss the grandiloquent architecture and recall its origin as an outward expression of the newly emerging colonial power of Belgium at the turn of the twentieth century. There was a pressing need to create a national sense of identity and Léopold II saw the solution in colonial adventures. Wealth extracted from the heart of Africa was lavishly deployed on a number of extravagant imperial projects of which this station was one. The postcard below shows the station building in the final stage of construction – the all-important clock has yet to be installed. Advertising hoardings surround the construction site. Among them is one promoting Lord Lever’s flagship product, Sunlight Soap. In 1911 Lever would visit the Belgian Congo and establish a palm oil processing plant dependant on the easy availability of forced labour, seriously undermining his reputation for philanthropy.
The cast-iron and glass train shed was first to be built between 1895 and 1898 to a design by engineer, Clement van Bogaert. The concourse and foyer were designed by Louis de la Censerie, begun in 1900 and finished in 1905. The prevailing architectural style is idiosyncratic Baroque while the twin design priorities seem to have been scale and decoration. Stone carved scrolls and ribbons, bosses, lions’ heads and swags of fruit and flowers compete for attention, framing the central clock that looks down on the concourse. Beneath the clock is an opulent gilded assemblage of tridents, swords with coiled serpents and cornucopia, overflowing with bounty and treasure. It’s a triumphal statement of wealth and prosperity. In his design de la Censerie took advantage of the elevated position of the train tracks and platforms to create a breathtaking theatrical transition from the concourse to the foyer far below at ground level via massive flights of steps. Standing on the polished marble floor in the foyer the eye can travel upwards, past the four great lantern windows to the full height of the cupola. Physically overwhelmed, the humble traveller is reduced to miniscule proportions by this overarching display of architectural and mercantile power.
The sense of occasion begins as the train approaches the station. For about half a mile the tracks run on a viaduct, flanked by defensive stone walls, punctuated every 10-15 metres by turreted sentry boxes – the impression is that we are arriving at a medieval citadel of power. The postcard supplies a glimpse – the water tower sadly only survives in a stripped down form. Viewed from the city centre and neighbouring streets the station building is a dominant presence and climbs high over its surroundings. Since 2007 the station has no longer been a terminus and passengers on through trains are denied the pleasures of the viaduct as their approach is via a tunnel. Rebuilding the station began in 1998 and the new extended and enhanced station will be the subject of a later post.