Will railroad stations be the last temples of democracy? As government buildings descend into cost-mandated mediocrity and we build few places of public gathering, it has been up to cultural and sports structures to express the communal spirit and achievements of our democracies. The former, however, have become elite endeavors (despite all their attempts to open themselves up), and the latter have become so dominated by the rules of the game (including skyboxes) as to become meaningless. It is up to our transportation centers to be the places where people of all classes and sorts mix and mingle. After a few decades of spectacular new airports, it is now up to train stations to take that role. While “sky cities" are becoming more or less the same—basically lesser versions of Foster + Partners' Chep Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong, all of which are really shopping malls that funnel business class and budget travelers separately—train stations still welcome everybody, with minimal security, and are usually integral parts of the cities they serve.
One of the best examples of such a structure I have seen recently is the new Arnhem Station, designed by UNStudio. (I have not yet seen the $4 billion, Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center Transporation Hub from the inside; the photographs make its central hall look impressive, if rather empty, but I still think the outside looks like a dead turkey carcass).
I have been following the Arnhem station for the almost 20 years that it has been in the making, but in the end it all comes down to the knot: One central structural element in the station hall allows its roof to float; swirls the circulation of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians to rotate around each other; and unifies the whole confluence of different modes of transportation coming together into an exhilarating celebration of movement, shot through with light.
When UNStudio started planning Arnhem Station, the firm was deep into “deep planning,” the notion that computer technology would allow us to collect all data and move it through computational algorithms that would produce semi-automatic form that, because of its roots in deep information, would appear surreal in its realization.
Reality turns out to be more complex, especially in this case. Arnhem Station had to bring together train, buses, parking (both for cars and for bicycles, a big deal in the Netherlands), offices to help pay for it all, and the usual ancillary functions of control and shopping. There were several clients, ranging from private developers to the train station operator and the railroad company. As a result, UNStudio’s master plan, which indeed fused all these forces into a single human-made geology held together by that central knot, had to be cut into different parts with different timelines, budgets, and clients. I visited the parking garage more than 10 years ago, and for years saw the office towers rising rather forlornly from an endless construction site.
I will not describe Arnhem Station, as it has been well-reviewed in this magazine and elsewhere, except to say that the station hall works as planned, flowing from sidewalk, parking areas, and platforms into the central hall around the knot, with all of the elements, from the prefabricated station platforms to the ramps and handrails that ooze into the surrounding public space, flowing with a voluptuousness that makes me think that this has to be the sexiest station ever built. UNStudio in Baroque mode is hard to beat for spatial exuberance, and this building ranks with the firm's Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart as its greatest accomplishment.
What I do wonder is whether the Arnhem Station is the latest example of a renewed investment, both monetarily and aesthetically, in great public space—an investment that would validate the hope that the European Union would coalesce into a working state before the end of this century—or whether it is already a dinosaur. In typical Dutch fashion, UNStudio founder and principal Ben van Berkel (together with Caroline Bos) brought together a who’s who of Dutch developers, investors, and critics for a tour of the building and a dinner this week, at which he asked freelance curator Anne van der Zwaag to comment. In her brief remarks, she pointed out the advent of self-driving cars and the arrival of on-demand transportation services such as Uber, as well as pointing out the split between luxury experiences and budget movement. She said the station, and trains in general, would be a useless technology within 20 to 30 years, leaving the station available to the assembled developers, who she urged to start thinking of uses for its beautiful forms.
Only in the Netherlands would you ask a friend and critic to tell you how useless your achievements are. The question remains, though, whether van der Zwaag is right. I would like to think that trains, whose operation and comfort has improved markedly across Europe in the last decade, will actually replace much airplane travel in that period. I would also like to think that the new stations, whose allure has already attracted higher-end retailers and tourists who come just to see the buildings, will endure as public attractors. Having said that, van der Zwaag has a point: Our society is atomizing and stratifying in ways that are frightening, and perhaps such gestures of connection such as the knot are romantic rear-guard actions.
I hope not. Walking through the Arnhem Station, its steel curves (fabricated by ship builders) flowing into public space all around them, I felt at home in public and happy to be moving. For that alone, UNStudio and its collaborators and clients deserve our gratitude.