Sixteen Sheets to the Wind (Leuven station, Belgium)

You know that thing when you come across an architecture practice because they’ve done some amazing work at a railway station, and then you find out they’re just as committed to de-uglifying roadside filling station design as you wish everyone else was?

No? Just me then? Oh well.

Leuven station. By Samynandpartners (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Leuven station. By Samynandpartners (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This is Leuven station in Belgium. After the Flanders Spatial Structure Plan confirmed it as one of the region’s first-tier railway stations, an upgrade to the dated station facilities was required. However, Belgian state railway operator SNCB demanded from the beginning the retention of the main station building, both because of its historical significance and its contribution to the urban environment, which SNCB was keen to preserve. That meant that the redevelopment would concentrate on the platform and track area. Some tracks were removed to make way for new buildings, while over the platforms a new canopy was demanded to better handle the needs of passengers. The opportunity was also taken to address severance caused by the railway tracks, isolating the urban areas on either side of the station from one another.

Brussels-based architecture and engineering company Samyn and Partners was the successful bidder for the work, and they created one of the most ingenious station canopies you’ll find. The reason the company refers to itself as “architects and engineers” rather than simply an architecture practice is abundantly clear from the structural spectacle it delivered. This is structural engineering taken to its highest aesthetic expression.

Leuven station at night. By Samynandpartners (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Leuven station at night. By Samynandpartners (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Much like Liège-Guillemins and Graz Hauptbahnhof, Leuven station features an arched roof which runs at right angles to the tracks below (as opposed to traditional trainsheds where the roof runs along the length of the station). However, the structure at Leuven is substantially more complex, because there are four large arches at right angles to the tracks, and each one is formed of four aluminum clad canopies which run longitudinally, giving a total of 16 canopies. It sounds frightfully complex, but it looks wonderful. Jones (2006, p229) says the canopies “seem to be trying to lift off like “sheets in the wind””; from above I’ve always thought it looks like a shoal of silver fish jumping up-river. The large arches running across the tracks have widths of 52m for the outer pair, while the inner pair are 39m wide, a set of dimensions which Samyn and Partners says mirrors the curves in the supporting wires of the high voltage overhead electrification wires which provide power to trains.

The roof is supported by piles comprising either four and three columns (four for the most part, three at the ends, reflecting differing forces imposed by different parts of the roof). These piles also provide support for the gantries from which the overhead electric power supply wires are suspended. Between the long sides of each of the vaults is a lens-shaped glazed skylight which lets daylight down onto the platforms. Between the short end of each vault, however, smaller gaps are left completely open. This is intended to allow for natural ventilation, and provide smoke outlets in the event of fire. Small glass awnings are provided on the platform below these gaps to protect passengers from rain.

Leuven station. By Smiley.toerist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Leuven station. The success of the architects in allowing natural light to get down to platform level is evident. By Smiley.toerist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The multi-vaulted roof is more than just visually spectacular. Its vaulted shape helps capture train noise, absorbing it into perforated steel decking lining the underside of the canopies and reducing ambient noise levels by 30%, according to Samyn and Partners’ calculations. The ends of the canopy have a curious half-and-half appearance, caused by the alignment of expanded steel sheets on either side of the canopy; the arrangement reduces air turbulence from passing trains, and also lessens the impact of wind on the roof. It might look like sheets in the wind, but no-one wants it to take off for real.

For all its drama, the new station roof doesn’t dominate the area physically, nor overshadow the historic station building. Its roof line is such that it tucks behind the old station building without overpowering it. Yet it still provides a spectacular landmark for Leuven when glimpsed from surrounding roads.

Leuven station. By Jean Housen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Leuven station. The air turbulence-reducing canopy ends can be seen. By Jean Housen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A glass-sided footbridge runs across the tracks, half given over to pedestrians and half to cyclists. The glass sides reduce its visual intrusion with the station, making it almost imperceptible. The lift shafts which link it to the platforms below are made of glass, and extend right up through the station roof, and so act as additional light wells, bringing more light down to platform level. The footbridge extends out to both sides of the railway tracks, and can be used by non-train passengers as a walking or cycling route, improving urban permeability in the station’s locale.

Leuven station. Photo by Dariusz Sieczkowski [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Leuven station. The glass-sided footbridge can be seen, but causes little visual intrusion. Photo by Dariusz Sieczkowski [CC BY-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Intricate roofs turn out to be something of a speciality of Samyn and Partners, with its dual focus on both architecture and engineering. Regular readers will know of my interest in non-ugly gas/petrol/service/filling stations (call them what you will) which are an all-too-rare type of transport building. Happily, in researching this article, I discovered that Samyn and Partners seems to share my interest, and has designed some properly extraordinary filling stations along the motorways of Belgium, as I’ll show you next week.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Jones, Will (2006): New Transport Architecture. London: Mitchell Beazley

Samyn and Partners’ project page on Leuven station, on its official website, here

How to find Leuven station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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