Bird of Paradise (Gare de Saint-Exupéry TGV, Lyon, France)

High Speed train travel is sexy. Blasting across a country at 200mph, so fast that even the horizon scrolls past…what’s not to love about that? But as far as I can tell, nearly all of the industrial design undertaken on the physicality of high speed rail is expended on the trains themselves. On Britain’s first high speed railway, HS1, you’d think we might want to celebrate the arrival of the future (well, the last quarter of the twentieth century, anyway) with something a bit eye-catching. A bit stylish. A bit, well, beautiful. Here’s what we actually got:

Ebbsfleet International station, Kent. By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Ebbsfleet International station, Kent. By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the retail park.

Other countries do it better. I’m not saying they do it consistently better. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Here’s France’s Gare Lorraine TGV, on LGV Est, which also opened in 2007:

By Ske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Oh dear.

As you can see, 2007 was not a good year for beautiful railway stations. Meuse TGV (also on LGV Est) tried to snatch something back though.

Luckily, some stations have shown that high speed rail infrastructure need not spend its time lazing about in the ugly tree. London’s St Pancras International is one, though you could argue it’s a bit of a cheat because it’s based on a much older, already awe-inspiring building. I’ll cover it’s extraordinary conversion some other time. But some all-new stations also embody that sense of wonder and beauty to which all high speed railway stations could, and – dammit – should, aspire.

At the suggestion of one of this blog’s readers, might I turn your attention to Lyon’s Gare de Saint-Exupéry TGV in France? As an aside, it used to be called Gare de Satolas, which caused no end of confusion while I was researching this, I can tell you. Thanks to Google Street View you can look around the outside of it. Go on, you know you want to.

Here’s the view on the inside. C’est magnifique…

768px-Station_Saint-Exupéry_2
By Radiuk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Radiuk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Radiuk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gare de Saint-Exupéry TGV is an early work (opened 1994) by Spanish futurist architect/sculptor/structural engineer/artist/all-round genius Santiago Calatrava. With its black wings held aloft, the main entrance looks like a raven or some other equally spooky bird. In that way, it’s atypical of Calatrava’s work, whose buildings are very often finished in blinding white. They also, fairly often, look like they’ve arrived from outer space. They’re fascinating and gorgeous. Each year, I spend a lot of time looking at his buildings in Valencia, which appear in the background during coverage of the European Grand Prix, rather than the racing action. Well, it is the European Grand Prix, after all.

Calatrava’s work feels not just like architecture but a cross between that discipline and structural engineering (I wish I could say that was an original thought, but it’s paraphrased from his Wikipedia page: I’m learning all this as I go along). The experience of his stations – he’s designed more than one – is like being on the inside of the skeleton of some fantastical beast, or perhaps within the three dimensional realisation of a giant spirograph pattern. Gare de Saint-Exupéry is no exception.

Here’s what the man himself says about the station. “The dramatic form of 5,600 square meter railway station resembles a bird at the point of flight [see, I told you so] and is envisioned as a symbolic gateway to the region of Lyon. The 1,300 ton roof of the main hall measures 120×100 meters, with a maximum height of 40 meters and span of 53 meters” (source: www.calatrava.com, which has loads more gorgeous pictures of both this station and other works). That’s a really big bird.

Thanks to its location at an airport, rather than on the main TGV network (Lyon has its own TGV station in town at Gare de la Part-Dieu) the station is not particularly well used; essentially only by those interchanging between flights and the TGV network, which is always going to be a limited number. I don’t know whether to be upset that such a wonderful design has been wasted in a location where it’s not used by thousands of passengers every day, or pleased that it’s almost a secret we can keep to ourselves.

It came at a cost. Gare de Saint-Exupéry cost 750million French Francs when it was built (says Wikipedia with no reference, so I hope that’s right). I’m sure Ebbsfleet International cost a lot less. But if Ebbsfleet International is acting as any kind of symbolic gateway to north Kent, then heaven help all those who live nearby.

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