Beyond Buildings

 

The Calatrava that Ate Liege, Belgium

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Aaron Betsky

 

When you can see a piece of architecture from an airplane, it certainly piques your curiosity. So it was, that, after I had landed at Brussels airport a few weeks ago and had rented a car, I made a detour on my way to the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to go see the Guillemins TGV station that Santiago Calatrava designed in Liege, Belgium. From the air, it looked like an insect as large as a whole neighborhood, crawling from the hills into the city. From the ground, it turned out to be equally biomorphic, though not nearly as menacing in appearance.

 

 
Aaron Betsky

 

I must say that I have never been very fond of Liege. When I was growing up in the Netherlands, it invariably lay on our way to any vacation destination in the south (my father refused to use the German Autobahn) and it was a nightmare to navigate through the landscape of industry, mines, and soot-blackened neighborhoods. Now there are highways that sweep around the center, the city is cleaner, and a pedestrianized core highlights the monuments of state, church, and culture. The station, which opened last year, is a symbol of what is supposed to be the rebirth of this mining hub into one of logistics and services.

 


Aaron Betsky

 

It has not been a gentle operation. To get to the station, you have to wind your way through roads that try to navigate the Meuse river and the built-up terrain, until you find yourself in a neighborhood of repair shops, cheap hotels, bars, and what I assume are brothels. Then, a clearing, cars parked against construction fences and, posing itself against Cointe Hill, the station’s long, low sweep.

 

That is it. Sure, there is a ground level of services, and a parking garage to the rear, but what overwhelms you (and what I saw from 10,000 feet up) was that stretch, almost 500 feet long, repeated in parallel arches across a dozen train tracks. This row flips up at either end, and stairs descend from it back down to the plaza level. A lid, also arched and bowed, extends out the front. The whole thing is covered with glass, supported by a web of white-painted steel members.

 

Calatrava has, in other words, reduced the station to its essence, which is a giant roof that keeps you dry while you are waiting for or coming out of your train. Everything else that train stations has become, which is essentially a combination of shopping mall, intermodal node, parking garage, and symbol, has disappeared from view –except for that symbolic gesture of the roof itself.

 

 
Aaron Betsky

 

What does it mean? That remains open to question. Like almost all of Calatrava’s buildings, it is radically, aggressively, and, I think stupidly, out of context. It does a lot of work for little functional gain: I can imagine it will be quite cold there in the winter, and there is no relation between the ancillary functions and the platforms. All you get is the gesture that, I guess, makes visible the speed with which the new trains move, while alluding to the history of train sheds and perhaps to the gathering domes of civic buildings.

 

The Guillemins Station confirmed several things to me. First, bigger is not necessarily better. Second, Calatrava is one of the most overrated architects working today, whose big moves come at the expense of everything else architecture is supposed to achieve.Third, it is difficult to argue for infrastructure has having a civic presence. Fourth, an emphasis on transportation, whether it is in airports, highway interchanges, or train stations, does not necessarily make for good urbanism. Finally, all of that may not matter if the one big move is exhilarating enough.


In this case, I find much to criticize, but would I have ever gone to Liege if it is was not for this object? Guillemins Station is, for better or for worse, the one gesture, the one space, the one fact on the ground, that stands between a used-up industrial city and irrelevance.

 

 
 

Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Atssip | Time: 7:00 PM Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    I am so pleased to read something new about the Liege Guillemins Gare, I am from Liege, and it was a "great day" when they did this "piece of art", everyone was so pleased, The State, the City, Europe funds, Private sectors, ... For my part i was satisfied, i was telling myself, we have a real european football stadium now, for joking, But these arguments about the much bigger, the functionality and all, I am Ok, and I confirm this is freezing in winter under the "roof" ...

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.