Mountain High Style (Hungerburgbahn, Innsbruck, Austria)

The Hungerburgbahn in Austria has some of the most jaw-dropping station design you’ll see on an urban metro. But frankly, pretty much everything about the Hungerburgbahn is extraordinary.

It’s sort of a funicular mountain railway, and sort of a cable-hauled light railway, sort of a city metro, and sort of an underground railway, all at once. Cable hauled trams aren’t new: San Francisco still has them, as does the Great Orme in Wales, UK, and they’re often used as short-distance people movers, for instance at Birmingham Airport, UK. Neither are funicular mountain railways, which can be found the world over, and many of which are over 100 years old. Underground metros have also been around for a very long time. But if you put all these together, you get something rather unusual.

The Hungerburgbahn opened in 2007, linking the centre of Innsbruck with Hungerburg, a suburb a little over a mile away, in the Nordpark area. Oh, and although Hungerburg is about a mile away, it also happens to be 300m higher up the side of a mountain. That’s a lot in railway terms, and it’s even more impressive when you discover that the Hungerburgbahn starts off at an underground station at the Innsbruck end, pops up to the surface to serve the first of its two intermediate stations, crosses the river Inn, pops back down into a tunnel, pops back up again and does most of its climbing on the last third of its route, on which part is the second of its intermediate stations.

There is a very obvious design problem to overcome with such a strange hybrid of systems. If the Hungerburgbahn used a conventional railway carriage, the passengers would fall out of their seats (or just fall over, if they were standing) on the steep gradients at the Hungerburg end of the route. Conversely, if the tiered design of a conventional large funicular were used, everyone would fall out/over once the vehicle was on the flatter sections at the Innsbruck end.

Very cleverly, the Hungerburgbahn uses vehicles which are essentially cages, inside which are five separate cabins. Each cabin has its own pivot connecting it to the larger cage, and when the vehicle is on a gradient, the cabins remain horizontal (independently of each other) as the cage tilts up around them. Hmm, this is hard to explain. Easier in pictures, I think:

One of the Hungerburgbahn vehicles on level track at the underground station in Innsbruck. All the blue cabins are sitting in a line within the grey 'cage' which is what the wheels and cable are attached to. By Wolfgang Glock (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the Hungerburgbahn vehicles on level track at the underground station in Innsbruck. All the blue cabins are sitting in a line within the grey ‘cage’ which is what the wheels and cable are attached to. By Wolfgang Glock (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The same vehicle, now on one of the steep sections of track. The blue cabins are now stepped up in relation to each other, and have rotated in relation to the grey frame, but each cabin itself remains horizontal. Clever...By User:My Friend (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The same vehicle, now on one of the steep sections of track. The blue cabins are now stepped up in relation to each other (just like a conventional large funicular railway carriage), and have rotated in relation to the grey frame, but each cabin itself remains horizontal. Clever! By User:My Friend (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s only one other system like it in the world (according to cable-hauled railway specialist website The Gondola Project), at Neuchatel, Switzerland, and that one’s much shorter and doesn’t have any intermediate stations. The Gondola Project has a lengthy piece on the applications of such technology and does it much more coherently than the above, so it’s time to turn our attention from the clever technology to the beautiful stations.

Making a welcome reappearance in this blog is architect Zaha Hadid, who previously caught our attention with Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport. The Hungerburgbahn stations are an earlier work, but there are similarities which make them clearly products of the same imagination. Hadid’s Zaha Hadid Architects designed all four stations on the route, as well as the bridge over the Inn. It’s a commission which harks back to London Underground head Frank Pick bringing in architect Charles Holden to design stations along new Underground routes in the 1920s and 30s, because he wanted brilliant design to be employed. Ordinary was not good enough for Pick, and neither was it for Innsbruck mountain railway operator Innsbrucker Nordketten Bahnen. Fortunately, Hadid’s designs are extraordinary.

Each of the four Hungerburgbahn stations is a variation on a theme, one that Hadid (who worked on the designs with Patrik Schumacher, also of Zaha Hadid Architects) refers to as “shell and shadow”. The “shells” form the roof sections of each station. These extraordinary structures are clad in white glass panels separated by black joint lines, which help define the shape. There’s barely a straight line to be seen on these smooth, curvy canopies; they seem half melted or half deformed, but into the most sensuous and tactile elements you could imagine. In other words they’re typical of what you’d expect from Hadid’s deconstructivist sensibilities. Despite their size, they touch down only at points, with remarkably small footprints, leaving these impressive structures apparently floating over the concrete plinths below. The smooth white shapes are intended to represent ice movement, and the formations created by glaciers (which they do); they are entirely in keeping with the mountain locale.

The concrete plinths under the white glass canopies employ many Hadid trademarks. The concrete is formed into zig-zags, curves and terraces which sweep around the stations, tracing the “shadow” of the shell above. Look carefully and you’ll see corners are rounded off, and the concrete is polished and smooth. It’s big concrete, but it’s far from Brutalist. The concept (canopy shelters a concrete base containing lifts/escalators/stairs, platforms and basic station facilities) is simple. The joy is all in the imagination and execution, and the individuality of each station in amongst a family likeness.

Congress station is at the Innsbruck end of the line. The platforms are underground, so the concrete plinth is quite modest here, wrapping around the street corner on which the station entrance is placed. Above, the white ‘shell’ features a skylight, and it appears to balance precariously over the station entrance. It’s small in scale, big on impact.

Congress station. By BKP (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Congress station. By BKP (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Next up is Löwenhaus, where the concrete plinth is more visible because there are stairs up to an elevated platform. The canopy has to reach down much further so that it can touch the ground.

Löwenhaus station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Löwenhaus station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Look how the cycle parking is sheltered under the platform (lovely). It’s also interesting to note that this is another very small site, but the station successfully avoids looking ‘squeezed in’.

Between the two intermediate stations is the bridge over the Inn. An asymmetric s-curved cable-stayed bridge, the cables are supported by just two sculptural towers (like giant needles, eye at the top), one each side of the track.

The bridge over the Inn. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The bridge over the Inn. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the driver of a Hungerburgbahn train and see this everyday?

View of the bridge over the Inn from a Hungerburgbahn train. By BKP (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
View of the bridge over the Inn from a Hungerburgbahn train. By BKP (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, no, because the Hungerburgbahn is driverless. Which means that passengers get to enjoy the view instead.

The next stop is Alpenzoo (home of Europe’s highest zoo…). Built onto the steep side of the mountain, the platform is close to the mountainside at one end, while the other end dangles in the air. It’s a decent lift journey (or several flights of stairs) to reach the ground.

Alpenzoo station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Alpenzoo station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Alpenzoo’s canopy is less obviously sculpted than those at the other stations, but the building as a whole is wonderfully dramatic, resembling nothing so much as a ski jump. Hadid has form on ski jumps actually, having designed one for Innsbruck in the late 1990s.

At the top end of the line is Hungerburg station, again with platforms on a lower level, so it’s all about the canopy again. It’s probably the most dramatic on the Hungerburgbahn, a big pair of wings wrapping themselves protectively around the top of the station (though seen from above, the canopy isn’t as symmetrical as it seems from ground level).

Hungerburg station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Hungerburg station. By Hafelekar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If the Hungerburgbahn recalls Pick and Holden’s determination to give London Underground stations good design, then Hungerburg station is the spiritual successor of the Underground’s Cockfosters station. Both feature cutting edge roofs in radical new forms, protectively enveloping the platforms, passengers and trains below. All the Hungerburgbahn stations are especially impressive at night, when the lighting bounces off the reflective glass of the canopies.

You’ll have realised by now that I think the Hungerburgbahn is quite fantastic. Fortunately, rather more eminent persons than I share that view. The Royal Institute of British Architects gave the Hungerburgbahn stations the RIBA European Award in 2008.

How to find the Hungerburgbahn

The green arrow indicates the location of the Congress station, at the city end of the line. Launch the map and play around with the satellite view, and you’ll soon find the other stations and the bridge over the Inn.

Further reading and bibliography

Zaha Hadid Architects’ project page on the Hungerburgbahn stations, here. There’s also a downloadable .pdf.

If you’ve been intrigued by the Hungerburgbahn, you can visit it virtually if you’re not conveniently placed to pop over in person. The operator’s website has a 360 panorama function which allows you to explore the outside and inside of the stations, here. Great fun once you get the hang of it.

Press release from operator Innsbrucker Nordketten Bahnen marking the opening of the Hungerburgbahn (2007), here

International Ropeway Review’s (I should have known there was a trade magazine) piece on the Hungerburgbahn and the other local cable cars has lots of technical detail, here

Finally, I shouldn’t forget to mention the links in the main article, all of which refer to materials I looked at before writing this entry.

5 thoughts on “Mountain High Style (Hungerburgbahn, Innsbruck, Austria)

  1. Great piece as always Dan. Spectacular infrastructure and design, I’ve never seen this before – will have to add to the transport bucket list! Brilliant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s