There is something to be said about an artist combining both the elegance of the aesthetic and a keen sensibility technically. Sistine Chapels are built, and while I don't gander to compare anyone to Michelangelo, I’m willing to bet you will feel the same awesome presence that chapel takes on when walking into Santiago Calatrava's structures.
You feel a rush, the adrenaline pulses through you as though your feet are no longer anchored to the ground, that you are elevated up amongst the arcs and then the complicated transverse geometries all of a sudden seem soft like clouds. This is true of his latest sculpture, the high speed accessible Liège-Guillemins train station in historic, quaint and rugged Liège, Belgium.
Calatrava has a fondness for the city after spending nearly 11 years bouncing in and out during the construction and sees the importance of Liège’s history as an industrial area prior to the steelworks collapse, and feels a need to recognize the strong foundation needed for Liège to become a viable gateway city.
“You can understand the importance of a city by looking at the industrial developed areas, and core-head of the industry in this part of the world,” says Calatrava. He feels as though “industrial” does not assume an eventual decline into degradation, but instead should still serve as a hallmark to the integrity of the city and its resources. This area of Liège has suffered greatly during the past 50 years, due to the overdevelopment of the Meuse river borders, highway construction, and a multitude of train lines. Calatrava has hopes for a sustainable development, and plans to open again a channel to the Meuse River, the “Avenue de la Liberté”. The intended Avenue is a grand promenade, flanked on either side with regal buildings in the traditional Belgian style, and a greenway that leads to the banks of the Meuse.
Calatrava stayed true to his oeuvre being employed in the new World Trade Center transportation hub now under construction, seeking clean, laminated spaces, for a heightened sensibility for security. He explains that “The station gathers us for a while”, and also lives by the rule of simple organization as a tool for efficiency, security and mobility.
The train station is meant to be one that, as a commuter passing through Liège, will grab your attention, and make you feel as though you must visit on your next travel through. It is meant to be a destination for the citizen, whether or not the travel-capacity is used. Calatrava and Vincent Bourlard, the Director General of the station, have known each other for more than a decade now, trying to fund, plan and construct such a structure, an effigy to the older forms of slower transportation, and to find new ways of laying out such hip civil engineering projects.
There was a town hall meeting in which the prize of the design of the new station was awarded. He accepted Calatrava’s original design in total, and saw that Calatrava had the city’s best interest at heart in the design- to open the station to both sides of the track lines and to incorporate art and culture, shopping and dining; essentially hoping to revitalize the area. Bourlard felt as though the station was art, and in an Idea; a train station, as a gathering place, should be a cultural and artistic place.
“Art is there to be brought closer to the people,” Calatrava agrees, “It is something that dignifies the space.” He mentions later that he was “inspired by his client’s love of his country and city and also inspired by what the high speed trains can bring in movement to the people; it is a new renaissance of the station, as was present in the turn of the century.”
Of course Calatrava isn’t blind to the fact that 11 years is quite a span of time for a station to be constructed. There was the problem of the pre-existing station, in which the new one was built on scaffoldings overtop, and then “dropped” in five sections of five arcs apiece in place. “In terms of creating a tool that can be projected into the Twenty-First Century, and can be useful, not only for this generation, but for the next and the next generation, we had to take very severe measures of engineering, ” Calatrava states.
Cost of the new station was in total €445M ($650), €210M provided by Infrabel, Belgium’s infrastructure manager, and €235M by Holding (SNCB). The inclusion of the complete renewal of the tracks in Liège and other parts of Belgium in this cost shows a refreshing fore-thought to growth and achievement. Improvements in time also came, not just because of the high-speed, but due to the fact that, with these new tracks, trains may now approach at 100 kph (62 mph), instead of the seemingly archaic 40 kph. Luc Leilland, the Belgian liaison remarks that, “While this big project is ending, a new big project is starting: the Regional Express Network.”
The station itself was intended to frame the city, for the incoming commuters, and passer-bys, and the charming candy-store shop-fronts are the perfect contrast against the wide-mouthed gap of the station hull. The city is the station, and vice verse. Blend-ability could have been a challenge considering the station lies at the foot of the Cointe Hills, but Calatrava’s linear waves seem to disintegrate into their surroundings, unassuming and gentle. It is an elegant station, but it’s got moxy. The locals are understandably excited and proud, “This is very important to us, that this is here and everyone is here to see it. We are very proud,” says one man at the Inaugural Gala, which included a reception with the government officials, press and a never-before-seen spectacular created by Frank Dragone, of Cirque Du Soleil fame.
While spending a lot of his time in Europe, Calatrava, his wife Robertina, and children reside in NYC on Park Avenue. He recently received the 2009 European Steel Design Award for his three bridges in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This was the sixth distinction that he’s received from the European Convention for Constructional Steelwork (ECCS). The Liège-Guillemins station received the 2006 European Award for Excellence in Concrete.
by Carly Erin O'Neil
Additional photographs by Joao Carlos