They’ve been running trams in Łódź, Poland, since 1898. It’s only since 2015, however, that the city’s tram network has featured a landmark tram station which has become a much-photographed piece of transport infrastructure. In the centre of Łódź, at the intersection of the main north-south and east-west tram routes, is Piotrkowska Centrum. It opened after the north-south tram lines were diverted along the east-west tram axis for a short distance, allowing cross-platform interchange and the new station, after which the north-south trams resume their original route.
Designed by Warsaw-based architecture practice Foroom, Piotrkowska Centrum is an unusually dramatic piece of tram architecture. If you like Santiago Calatrava’s work on railway stations, then you’ll like this. It has something of the same adventurous spirit and ostentatious engineering, but scaled down to the dimensions of Łódź’s narrow gauge (1,000mm) trams.
The design of the station is intended both to complement the city’s existing architecture, by drawing on the Art Nouveau details to be found on nearby buildings, but also to remain a practical piece of transport infrastructure. To ensure maximum pedestrian space at this busy interchange, a structure of load-bearing steel columns supporting a glass roof was chosen. Reducing impediments to passenger flow is an age-old problem at busy transport terminals, and it’s why the same answer has resulted time and time again. Slender columns supporting a glass roof ensure the footprint of the building is minimised, allowing unhindered pedestrian movements, while shelter is provided and natural light can make its way in.
The steel columns of Piotrkowska Centrum branch out into curved arms underneath the roof, with reinforcing beams in the spandrels giving rise to a geometric pattern simple in genesis, but complicated and intricate when repeated across and along the station. One interesting feature is that overhead rails are used for power supply within the station, rather than wires. The rails are supported by pairs of cables arranged in repeating v-shapes, and the use of a rigid power rail means that less cabling is needed to support it than would be the case for a wire, so there is less visual distraction from the tram station’s architecture.
Piotrkowska Centrum is huge; 100m long by 32m wide, giving 3,200 square metres of covered space for tram passengers, and allowing for four tram tracks underneath its roof. The roof itself is something even more special, and it’s here that recent technologies have assisted in the creation of something that owes much to the steel and glass station roofs of old, but with an entirely modern twist.
The original plan had been to use glass panels in the roof, but consultancy BuroHappold Engineering reviewed the project and suggested the use of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) instead. A translucent plastic fabric, ETFE has appeared on these pages before, also being used to good effect in the roof at Southern Cross station in Melbourne. Not only is it very light, but it is also very strong across a wide range of temperatures, making it ideal for Poland’s harsh winters.
Setting apart the roof of Piotrkowska Centrum from similar examples on other pieces of transport infrastructure is one significant, and highly flamboyant, difference. Unlike the clear glass at other stations, Piotrkowska Centrum’s features a geometric pattern in multiple colours, again inspired by the decoration of local historic buildings. It’s quite unlike anything you’ll have seen at any other tram station (at least, all the ones I know).
The tram station is so distinctive that it’s already got a nickname: “The Unicorn Stable”. When I was young, unicorns were invariably all-white. These days, for some reason, most self-respecting unicorns are represented with rainbow tails, and possibly manes, and they also have wings (as my niece recently patiently explained to me, as though as I was some kind of idiot). So if they ever needed stables, an ethereal white structure with a multi-coloured ‘glass’ roof would, I admit, be just the thing.
There’s a dark side to Łódź’s tramway network though. In 2009, it became an early victim of techno-hacking when a local teenager hijacked control of various pieces of pointwork on the tram tracks, causing several derailments (more details of this fascinating but rather alarming story can be found in this story on the London Reconnections website).
The Unicorn Stable isn’t the only building to interest those interested in transport architecture. Łódź was on a bit of a building spree when it built Piotrkowska Centrum. Its main railway station, Łódź Fabryczna, reopened in 2014 after a dramatic rebuilding and relocation which took several years. And there are other parts of the city’s tramway which are of interest. The old tram station on the loop at Polocna is now looking rather run-down, but is a classic piece of streamline moderne to delight all those with an interest in Art Deco transport buildings.
Even if it were in tip-top condition though, it’s hard to imagine anything escaping from the shadow cast (in prestige terms, if not physically thanks to its skeletal construction and translucent properties) by Foroom’s Unicorn Stable.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Foroom’s project page on Piotrkowska Centrum tram station, here
BuroHappold’s project page on Piotrkowska Centrum tram station, here
The history of Łódź’s tramway, via operator MPK’s website, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above.