Liège wasn’t originally supposed to have a high speed railway station. When plans for the eastern leg of Belgium’s high speed rail network were put forward in the early 1990s, the city found itself bypassed. Frantic lobbying by the local community and elected representatives turned the tide however, and plans were altered to allow high speed trains to call there. It’s now on the link between Belgium’s HSL-2 (west of Liège ) and HSL-3 (to the east). And thank goodness for all that local campaigning, because the result is one of high speed rail’s great pieces of architecture.
Having won the battle to get high speed trains to serve Liège , the question was what to do with the existing station. It had grown piecemeal over decades and had a variety of through railway lines, dead-end terminating lines, and a complicated track layout. It was, to use a non-technical term, a bit of a shambles.
Belgium’s state railway company SNCB (though its Euro Liège TGV subsidiary) decided that the solution was a new station, to be built about 150m to the south of the old one. The new site allowed for wider and straighter platforms which were more convenient for passengers, and an easier connection with the local road network. It was hoped that the new station would also reduce the urban severance that the railway line caused. The heart of Liège is to the east of the railway line, while residential suburbs lie to the west, up a hill. Movement between the two was restricted by the railway.
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (1951-) was appointed as architect for the project in 1996, and the station received planning permission in 2000. Despite services on HSL-2 beginning in 2002, and construction of the new Liège station starting in 1999, it didn’t become operational until 2009. The station opened in phases (it continues to serve both conventional domestic train services as well as high speed international trains) and it was another year before all the finishing works were completed. Until 2009, trains served the old station, and then a temporary station. Building an all-new station on an operational railway line is a planning and operational nightmare, and it takes a long time to do, which is why most of the stations on England’s planned HS2 high speed railway are intended to be on completely new sites, on the new line, rather than rebuilds of existing stations on operational railways.
So what did SNCB get for its decision to appoint one of Europe’s most idiosyncratic architects to design the new Liège-Guillemins station? Well, it got pretty much what it wanted. A modern, high quality station, which improves urban permeability and provides a striking landmark for Liège.
Like much of Calatrava’s work, Liège-Guillemins is beautiful, though it’s awe-inspiring, rather than friendly. But that’s OK. Major railway stations have always been places of drama and excitement, and require architecture to match. They do not need to be small-scale, boring, and underwhelming (yes, Ebbsfleet International, I mean you).
Calatrava’s work often combines the architectural with the biological. While his station at Lyon’s Gare de Saint-Exupéry is a glowering bird of prey, hunched vigilantly over its platforms, Liège-Guillemins is more like a fabulous sea creature which has floated up onto the railway network. Seen from above, there is something of the manta ray about its outline, though the station is as transparent as a jellyfish. Neither jellyfish nor rays have skeletons, however, but the underlying structure of Liège-Guillemins is distinctly skeletal. It’s a kraken then, a fantasy sea creature, simultaneously familiar and strange. If H R Giger is too busy to design an alien for your next science fiction film, a creature disturbing because it combines recognisable biology with extra-terrestrial features, then Calatrava would probably be your man, if he wasn’t so busy with his architecture.
Strikingly, at the heart of this ultra-modern station is a very traditional railway idea; a glazed, arched roof over the platforms. But Calatrava turns the traditional railway trainshed roof (think London St Pancras, Milano Centrale, Köln Hauptbahnhof…) on its head. Actually, not quite on its head, more like 90°. While traditional railway sheds arch perpendicularly across the tracks, the roof at Liège-Guillemins arches parallel with the tracks. Even though Liège-Guillemins presents its side elevation to the city centre, the orientation of the roof means the station shows off its biggest feature (35m high and 160m long) to best effect. Supported at its ends by sculptural, white-painted concrete, the roof is made of steel with extensive glazing. The glazing which is such a notable feature all round the station, allows in plenty of natural light. It also ensures the transparency that helps the station act as a bond between the two parts of Liege on either side, rather than a divider.
Enhancing this effect is the fact that the station has no facade as such to block the view. You can arrive on a train and look right out of the station into the city (or vice versa). On the western side of the station, on the hill-side, a balcony allows travellers entering from that side to look right through the station and out of the other side.
Physical permeability is provided on the lowest level of the station, under the platforms, by a grand gallery which runs right across the station site and allows free movement across it for people who want to move between the two parts of town. Here, sculptural concrete supports the platforms above, and flooring is polished natural bluestone (a local building material), also used for benches in the station. This is no dark underpass, however, because glass block paving in the platforms above lets natural daylight in. From here, there are lifts and escalators to platform level.
The grand gallery is where passengers enter the station from the city side. On the west side of the station, where it is situated next to the hill, passengers enter at a higher level, onto the balcony, which links to the station’s two footbridges. These also provide the means for changing between platforms. The footbridges run across the station at the points where supports for the arched roof touch down, immersing passengers in a giant geometric spectacle like nothing else in railway architecture, really.
The arched roof extends outward on each side of the station into two giant cantilevered canopies that shelter the entrances on either side, providing cover for those arriving by bus and taxi, or being dropped off from cars. There’s also a three storey car park on the west side, which provides the connection route between the grand gallery and the hillside entrance.
Once on the platforms, everything is clean and simple. Long glazed canopies run out from the main arched roof to provide shelter for travellers using longer trains. Given the British railway industry’s interest in designing a more attractive support for overhead electricity supplies, it is worth noting the bespoke brackets for the overhead power supply, which complement the rest of the station.
It’s a fantastic achievement, and has been worth the wait during the long construction period. The new station has been so successful that Euro Liege has been renamed Eurogare and is busy taking forward several station projects in Belgium. And Eurogare liked Calatrava’s design for Liège-Guillemins so much that it appointed him to create a new station in Mons, the design of which was unveiled in 2007.
Santiago Calatrava has yet to undertake a commission in the UK. Is it too much to hope that he might be appointed to design one of HS2’s new stations? Given the current government’s enthusiasm for announcements that it has found further, expensive, ways of hiding even more of HS2 from view, it seems doubtful. The one thing you can rely on with a Calatrava station is that it will be arresting, and the UK apparently doesn’t want HS2 to be anything that anybody might notice.
How to find Liège-Guillemins station
Bibliography and further reading
SNCB subsidiary Eurogare’s project pages for Liège-Guillemins, here
Santiago Calatrava’s project pages for Liège-Guillemins, here