The Calatrava that Ate Liege, Belgium
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.
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.
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.
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.