Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Great Railway Stations Number 5 (Part 2): Antwerpen-Centraal

The reconstruction of Antwerpen-Centraal station began in 1998 and the extended and enhanced station opened at the end of 2007. The central platforms were removed (leaving six platforms at ground level) and deep excavation left a void large enough to accommodate two new levels of underground platforms, each level having four platforms. The lowest platforms enabled through trains to continue their journey via a newly constructed 2.36 mile rail tunnel under the city from Berchem to the south and Luchtbal to the north where it regains the surface. This epic remodelling of the station has created some thrilling and vertiginous spatial sensations. The subterranean levels are supported by uncluttered geometry that rests comfortably with the Baroque extravagance of the original station. More about the project can be read at the Railway Technology website.

Comparisons with the transformation of St. Pancras are interesting. Both projects involved creating new levels but while Antwerp has preserved clear sightlines of its architectural magnificence, this did not happen at St. Pancras where security and passenger segregation priorities were placed much higher and resulted in more enclosed spaces. The carefully preserved symmetry and open aspect of Antwerp allows a spectator on the concourse to stare down to the very depths of the station. Likewise, even at the lowest level, the concourse façade can be glimpsed in its distant and dizzying splendour. No such experience is available at St. Pancras where an asymmetrical plan was imposed with the Eurostar platforms pushed to the east. Spatial clarity and integration were also sacrificed at St. Pancras by banishing the Midland Mainline services to a basic box bolted on to the north west of the station. The result is that St. Pancras is a fragmented and discontinuous experience that will always lack the brilliant sense of coherence that Antwerp offers.

Cultural contrasts are also on display. St. Pancras reflects two British obsessions – retail and national security. Entering the station, the initial sensation is one of emerging into a glitzy shopping mall, overshadowed by the gruesome Champagne Bar. Locating the Ticket Sales is a serious challenge in an environment of colossal visual confusion. In Antwerp, a city where trading runs as deep in the collective DNA as anywhere, almost all the retail activity is confined to the arcades that run down the flanks of the station. This sort of discretion would once have been typically British – now we must travel abroad to escape the insolent vulgarity of commercial triumphalism.

Each station offers something unique. Extreme Gothic Revival at St. Pancras and the cavernous space of the foyer in Antwerp are rich and unique experiences. But Antwerp would be my preference, not least because it offers easy ground-level access to the city of which it is part via many exits and entrances while St. Pancras seems to exist in a bubble with hideously constrained access via unnecessarily mean spirited entranceways. A new feature length semi-documentary film Antwerpen-Centraal (2011), directed by Belgian film-maker Peter Krüger celebrates the station taking W G Sebald’s book, Austerlitz as a starting point. Follow this link to read more and to view a fascinating piece of time-lapse photography based on the station.

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