The Steel Forest (Estação do Oriente, Lisbon, Portugal)

A Santiago Calatrava transport building is in the news again, as usual not entirely for the right reasons. The Spanish architect’s latest station, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, has begun a phased opening programme, giving passengers their first glimpse inside the building. It’s running late and at about double the original budget, and has gone through some late design changes (or compromises, depending on your point of view) along the way, as detailed rather brilliantly by the New York Times, which suggests that the latter, as so often, has caused the former. It has been characterised by one columnist in the New York Post as (splendid American term) a “boondoggle”. Alongside the cost rises and completion delays, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub has also been criticised for going rusty before it’s even been completed (as you can see on this webpage at the New York Observer), but that might just be because the structural elements haven’t had their final finishes applied.

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub under construction in January 2015. This main above-ground building is called the
The World Trade Center Transportation Hub under construction in January 2015. This main above-ground building is called the “Occulus”. Photo by Eric Sehr [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

I must admit that I’ve seldom come across an architect whose buildings have proved quite so controversial, even after completion, as Calatrava. But then I suppose that’s what you get when you employ someone who is just as much an artist as an architect, and whose buildings are just as much sculpture, and very often just as much skeletal remains of fantastical beasts, as they are conventional structures. His work is at once highly distinctive, unlikely to be confused with that of any other architect, and yet extremely diverse. You can recognise elements in some of his buildings that remind you of others he has designed, but unlike some architects, you won’t find repetition of the same basic building with minor modifications to suit different sites.

Previously on the beauty of transport, we’ve looked at his railway stations Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupéry and Gare Liège-Guillemins. This time we’re going to Lisbon for his 1998 Estação do Oriente.

The Olivais district of Lisbon played host to the international Expo of 1998. One of the local challenges was that the railway running north-south through the area was on an embankment, which prevented easy movement across the railway alignment, leaving the Expo site hard to reach from anywhere more inland. Calatrava’s first step was to slightly reposition the site of the railway station proposed to serve as the transport gateway to the Expo, and construct a second major east-west road through the embankment, adding to one that was already there, so that the station would have a road running past it at each end. This immediately made the area more permeable to road traffic and pedestrians. As Calatrava explains, “The proposal thus ventured into the realm of urban planning: a decision that not only won the support of the Expo organizers but also of the city’s planning authorities, who up to that point had not been involved. The strategic order of the design helped to achieve the aim of giving the Olivais District a function beyond Expo.”¹

Then he got started on the station itself, which is where things get really spectacular. Thank goodness the new station was built in the Expo district, itself full of striking modern architecture. Let’s face it, a large Calatrava station tends to materialise like the ossified remains of something large and vicious from Game of Thrones, and it would have proven even more disconcerting had it done so in Lisbon’s historic city centre.

Photo by hugo n. [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The main (eastern) entrance to the station. Photo by hugo n. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

At ground level, the main entrance to the station is on the east side, under a large cantilevered canopy (which you can see in the photo above) that might remind you of Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins station, but also references the curved canopies of Guimard’s Paris Métro Art Nouveau station entrances, except at a vastly increased scale. Overhead, a pair of footbridges link the next storey of the station with the Vasco da Gama shopping mall across the road.

The main entrance and the footbridges all lead into the belly of the beast, the below-platform part of Estação do Oriente, which has replaced what used to be the railway embankment. It’s like something from a science fiction film set in there, a complicated construction of twinned arches, ribs, columns and braces (I think). There’s something of Gaudí about it, and something of Geiger, too. It’s a stark, undecorated, disturbing and beautiful piece of work that blurs the boundaries between engineering, sculpture and architecture. It houses ticket offices, shops, services and refreshment facilities – all the things you’d expect a major station to house. And Estação do Oriente is a major station, though it’s not precisely clear how major. Wikipedia says it has 75 million passengers per year, which makes it as busy as Grand Central Terminal in New York. This statistic is repeated endlessly around the web, though as far as I can tell copied from the Wikipedia entry in the first place, which cites no source. Personally, I’d be surprised if Estação do Oriente was as busy as Grand Central, but I’m willing to be proved wrong.

Photo  by Bobo Boom [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Below the platform levels, amongst the arches which support the railway tracks and platforms above, are the station’s passenger facilities. Photo by Bobo Boom [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

There are secondary entrance/exits linking the lower part of the station to the roads which run underneath the railway at both ends of the station, through arches which, if not quite as dramatic as the structures inside the main part of station’s lower levels, are some of the more interesting road-under-railway bridges you’ll come across. These arches are used to give shelter to bus stops and car passenger drop-off points.

Estação do Oriente is a proper public transport interchange, not just a railway station. Escalators and stairs lead down to lower levels and a station on the red line of the Lisbon Metro, while immediately to the west is a large coach and bus station. This was also designed by Calatrava as part of the overall station architecture. It is accessed by a single covered footbridge running out of the west side of the station at the same level as the twin footbridges enter on the east side, and it runs over the various bus/coach bays.

Photo by Carlo Ciccarelli [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The bus/coach station on the west side of the railway station. Photo by Carlo Ciccarelli [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

It’s rare to see such a level of architectural input into a coach/bus station, and demonstrates that it’s only lack of vision, rather than anything innate, which has left many similar structures around the world so bereft of architectural merit. Long glazed canopies extend out from the staircases and glass lift shafts which lead down onto the bus/coach boarding islands. Vehicular access in and out of the bus/coach station is facilitated by the revised road layout designed by Calatrava.

So that’s the lower levels of the station, below the height of the original embankment. I have, however, been saving what is arguably the most famous and most dramatic part of the station, until last.

By Joao.pimentel.ferreira (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Platform level. Photo by Joao.pimentel.ferreira (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On the top level, the railway tracks and platforms are sheltered by one of the most dramatic modern railway station roofs you will ever see. Based on a 56ft grid, columns reach up to a glass roof, with braces forming gothic pointed arch shapes. Again, you can see echoes of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família if you want to, but really it’s Calatrava’s interpretation of the same thing Gaudí was interpreting, the tree trunks and canopy of a forest. It is an extraordinarily beautiful structure, much photographed, and understandably so.

Calatrava has taken the concept of a landmark station roof from the Victorian era, but executed it with a modern twist. He’s captured the same spectacle and drama, but in an entirely new form.

Photo by Guy MOLL [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Night time under the amazing roof. Photo by Guy MOLL [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Given its complexity, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear that Estação do Oriente opened late and over budget, though as far as I can tell it was neither. It certainly can’t have been cheap and construction must have been very disruptive. But as with all such landmarks, it’s already got to the point where nobody cares any more, and the station is admired for the practical work of art it is. Hopefully New York will get over its Calatrava boondoggle worries just as quickly.

How to find Estação do Oriente

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

Bibliography/further reading

¹ Calatrava’s project page for Estação do Oriente, here

Portuguese railway operator CP’s webpage for Estação do Oriente, here

…and anything linked to in the text above

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