Railway stations may still be the cathedrals of the modern age, but – as Gensler plans to do at Leeds – they need to work with their surroundings to stay relevant, says Hiro Aso
Civilisations are recognised by the footprint they leave behind. These footprints usually arise out of satisfying society’s needs at the time, and include the Pyramids in Egypt, the ever-sprouting skyscrapers in Manhattan and the historic houses of the UK. I think we should now add railway stations to this list.
Rail systems and stations today are key additions to the urban palimpsest. They cater to the needs of people; commuters toing and froing, visitors setting out to explore and people looking to gather. Britain today has more than 2,500 railway stations with over 2.5 billion rail journeys made each year. Stations provide access to rail travel for the majority of people living in Britain, with over 85 per cent of the population living within 5km of one. As cities become increasingly multifaceted ecosystems of activity, stations have undergone a substantial evolution from a relatively simple, linear, existence to one that is a radial microcosm of the cities around them.
The moat-like segregation of the Victorian station from its surroundings is no longer relevant or helpful
Often referred to as ‘cathedrals of the modern age’, railway termini are to the 20th and 21st centuries what temples and basilicas were to the centuries before us. This is a fitting analogy on a number of levels, not purely because of their (sometimes) breath-taking architecture that reflects the technologies of the time – think of Brunel’s soaring ironwork at Paddington or the ingenious design and stylistic accomplishment achieved by Barlow and Cubitt at St Pancras and King’s Cross – but also because of the way, like cathedrals, they have anchored the respectful arrangement of somewhat subservient surroundings. But this is where the analogy abruptly ends.
In many cities, an effort is now being made to heal the physical and functional divide that was created deliberately between their stations and the communities around them. The abstract, decisive, moat-like segregation of the Victorian station from its surroundings is no longer relevant or helpful. Indeed, the typology needs to be fundamentally reconsidered if stations are to keep pace with the society’s rapidly changing expectations and needs.
The optimal integration of the station within its communities will celebrate the weaving together of rail and development at an embryonic level – this is what’s exciting with the technologies we have at our disposal, which should be reflected in the station of today and the future. The roof will be what it will be. But without the environmental needs for smoke collection and extract, it may no longer be the roof that is the manifestation of the forces that now drive the overarching, defining form of the station.
atkins gensler leeds station 2
Leeds Station, with proposals for HS2, HS3 and rail growth, perfectly illustrates this thinking. Gensler’s work as primary architect on the Leeds Station Masterplan demonstrates how infrastructure can fuse historic identity with a future vision to create unique and dynamic places. Tapping into the station’s Victorian heritage, we are incorporating features such as the original brick arches into a 21st-century design and including the river that runs through the city into our masterplan.
Traditionally the railway cut the city into two with a thriving North – and a more dormant South. We plan to unite the two and our ambition is that new businesses, retailers, restaurants and, of course, design and architecture practices will begin to populate the hitherto neglected south, bringing a new culture of creativity and energy to the city. So, the new railway station will unite both Leeds itself and the cities that comprise the Powerhouse, making journey times easier, collaboration more efficient and growth more likely.
In a period of great social, technological and economic upheaval it is not enough to act as we have done in the past – we must look to the future and ensure that stations are at the forefront of innovation and good practice. Only then, will stations have earned the right to endure in the memories of our future generations, long after their initial conception with which we are concerned today.
Hiro Aso is head of transport and infrastructure at Gensler