When the executives at Belgian oil company Fina decided they wanted to do something about the look of their petrol stations, they knew exactly who to call. Architecture and engineering practice Samyn and Partners might be several years away from designing the brilliant roof at Leuven railway station (the subject of last week’s entry) but it had already made a name for itself with a different roof (well, pair of roofs) entirely.
At the perhaps unexpected location of a service station on Belgium’s E411 motorway, Samyn and Partners had designed some of the best looking filling stations of the 1990s. Gone was the usual monolithic slab which functions as a roof at most filling stations. Instead, the filling stations at Wanlin (one each side of the motorway) were treated to an airy and elegant piece of landmark design. Sail-like, tent-like, marquee-like, call it what you will, it was a radical departure from the traditional “single steel awning bordered by a garishly coloured frieze” as Samyn and Partners’ website describes typical filling stations. Two thousand square metres of PVC polyester coated tarpaulin are stretched over curved beams to make the roof. The material, being translucent, results in an experience a lot less oppressive than regular filling stations. And while the roof is the highlight, the shop building was also designed to be larger, with bigger windows, in an attempt to get away from the penny-pinching claustrophobia more typical of such structures.
Strangely, the filling stations at Wanlin aren’t much photographed. It’s as though filling stations aren’t a natural subject for photography. Luckily, however, Google Street View is going to be our friend this week, and you can explore Wanlin’s filling stations via the Street View below. What it doesn’t do is show off how attractive the filling stations look at night, although Samyn & Partners’ website has a gallery which does just that.
The filling stations at Wanlin were initially operated by Fina, and shortly after their completion in 1995, Fina launched its “Fina 2010” programme. The aim was to find an architectural language for Fina’s filling stations which “contributes towards an increase in customer comfort and that aims to offer better, more gentle integration into both urban and rural surroundings”. When you think about it, that’s not so much to ask, yet the idea seems as radical today as it did in the late 1990s. With the company’s work at the Wanlin filling stations, Samyn and Partners was the obvious choice to define the architectural aspects of the Fina 2010 programme in general. The company’s stated aim was to find, “…solutions in the construction of service stations – a genre that generally adheres to a dull traditional design. The aim is to produce prominent constructions that offer an increased level of inventiveness in terms of both concept and construction.”
Samyn and Partners also went on to design several other attractive filling stations as part of the programme. Although both it and Fina are Belgium-based, the next filling station to get the Samyn and Partners treatment was in the Netherlands.
Houten filling station, completed in 1999, looks like no other I have ever seen. It is surrounded by a series of curved windshields. The locale is very flat, and Samyn and Partners noted that the typical construction of a filling station (large flat roof on several columns) tends to magnify the effect of wind on the customers under the roof. The windshields at Houten are constructed from numerous steel plates, and are 50% open to maintain transparency, and 50% closed to combat wind turbulence. The actual canopy of the filling station is set at a sloping angle, and is held up by columns constructed from four steel tubes, which branch out towards the top, in a tree-like gesture. Again, Google Street View lets you explore this unusual intervention in the built landscape:
Returning to Belgium, two years later, Samyn and Partners’ next filling station was a bigger project all round. Two filling stations, one either side of the motorway, were just part of a much larger service station building at Nivelles. This is the most Gerry Anderson you’ll ever see a motorway service station get, combining something of the sharp curves of Stingray’s Marineville, something of Thunderbirds’ Zero-X lifting body 1, and adding a generous dollop of the real-life Northrop YB-49. Completed in 2001, it’s a simply spectacular building, a giant black wing spanning the motorway on piers an impressive 70m apart, and using the ends of its wings as shelter for the filling stations underneath.
Additional awnings are cantilevered out from the main bridge to give further protection. The bridge building itself is fully glazed on its vertical sides, housing the usual service station functions within. What isn’t so usual is that Samyn and Partners conceived of the project as a space for cultural activities, housing art created by local artists or art schools.
A smaller service station project, built in Hellebecq at the same time as Nivelles service station was under construction, was less obviously innovative (see it here). Its multi-section sheet roof was still an improvement on most filling stations though. But it was important for something else. The client here was Totalfina, not Fina, which had merged with French-owned Total in 1999. The Fina identity would soon disappear in favour of Total’s, and although Total pursued the idea of attractive filling stations, Fina’s absorption into a larger company didn’t give the concept much acceleration.
Samyn and Partners’ next project for Total was completed in 2004 at Minderhout. Looking quite unlike any of its other filling station buildngs, Samyn and Partners here delivered a huge ridge and furrow glazed roof (users of stations like London Waterloo will know the sort of thing) covering both the filling station and extending over the service station. It is designed to be reminiscent of the commercial greenhouses in the surrounding area and also provides plenty of natural illumination for the buildings below. A slatted wooden ceiling underneath the glass ensures that service station users aren’t roasted, and diffuses the glare that direct sunlight would create, and can be seen in the Street View:
The next project, completed in 2008, saw more typically Samyn and Partners structures for the filling service stations at Jemeppe-sur-Sambre on Belgium’s E42. Though small by comparison with the last few service stations, the curved canopies with stretched PVC covering are both bright and airy during the day, and dramatically lit at night:
Finally, at Ruisbroek, a 2010 service station has a filling station with a clever curved roof formed of metal panels, which are arranged so that they appear to be tumbling over one another, supported on matchstick-thin metal columns, sometimes grouped into twos or threes. There’s a great sense of movement in the structure of this filling station, a world away from the stolid and ugly filling stations which dominate Europe’s roads.
And there in 2010, as far as I can tell, the Fina 2010 programme ended, appropriately enough. While the individual buildings designed by Samyn and Partners are incomparably better buildings than most filling or service stations, they can barely have made a dent in the overall stock of mediocre facilities operated by Fina and later Total. Designing better-looking and better-feeling filling stations is one of those ideas that oil companies keeping coming back to. Yet the good intentions somehow fizzle out (like Fina 2010, or Mobil’s 1960s Pegasus project, the results of which can still be seen at Red Hill filling station in Leicestershire) or are progressed at a glacially slow pace, as with Repsol’s signature-piece filling stations by Foster + Partners.
The executives of oil companies know that the design of most of their filling stations is mediocre and soul-destroying. But most of the time they keep building them anyway.
Further Reading and Bibliography
While I defy you to find the Fina 2010 programme properly set out in a document available on the web (seriously, it’s a challenge – I’ll add in the details if anyone can find it), Samyn and Partners has galleries and descriptions galore if its filling stations mentioned in the article above. For ease of reference, you can find them as follows:
Wanlin filling stations, here
Houten filling station, here
Nivelles service station, here
Hellebecq service station, here
Minderhout filling and service station, here
Jemeppe-sur-Sambre service and filling stations, here
Ruisbroek filling and service stations, here