Opinion: the golden age of airports is over, says Aaron Betsky

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"Railroad stations are our contemporary architecture of democracy"

Opinion: the golden age of airports is over, says Aaron Betsky. Railways have trumped air travel with better-designed terminals that are the epitome of contemporary democracy.


We are living in a new Terminal Age. Not since trunk lines erected their ornate termini in European cities in the third quarter of the 19th century have we seen so much investment in the architecture of mass-transit hubs centred on railroad lines.

From the curves of UNStudio's Arnhem Station and Benthem and Crouwel's prow for Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to the newly developed King's Cross and Alejandro Zaera-Polo's Birmingham New Street Station, and from the finally completed, Calatrava-created PATH station at Ground Zero in New York to the high-speed train station Andrew Bromberg has designed for Hong Kong, spectacular new structures are arching over trains, buses and – what is just as important – shopping malls that catch commuters on their way to and from work. Airports are so 'naughts. Railroad stations are our new public palaces of connection.

Arnhem Station by UNStudio
Arnhem Station by UNStudio in the Netherlands opened last year. Photo by Hufton + Crow

What makes these railroad stations especially interesting to me is that, unlike airports, they have outsides that have to mean something, taking on the role of icons and beacons of entry and departure (as well as civic pride), often in the heart of the city. Their insides, despite ominous signs after the Brussels bombings, are accessible to just about everybody.

Unlike airports, railroad stations can become gathering points and catalysts for urban transformation. Unfortunately, that means that more often than not they cause gentrification. On the inside, however, they cannot seem to shake a certain healthy sleaziness, with backpackers, prostitutes, and beggars mixing with the good citizens to-ing and fro-ing with efficiency.

The best new stations are open to the city with all its enticements and dangers. I have always loved the Zurich Central Station for its open sides and front, which let you see the trains from the street and the city from your carriage. The big gesture Benthem and Crouwel have made to Rotterdam's downtown in their Centraal Station there has a similar effect. Calatrava's TGV station in Liege is equally porous.

These stations are essentially semi-conditioned spaces with expressive roofs, which brings to mind Rem Koolhaas' remark that "all conditioned space is conditional". These are only semi-restricted, and beautiful to boot.

Another class of stations is the big knot, often combined with the Piranesian Plunge down to the train tracks. The best of these that I have seen is the Arnhem Central Station, whose structure and space all twist together in one spiraling core that reaches out to encompass the movement of people on foot, by car, on bicycle, and in the trains.

This "X that marks the spot" is an active marker, an activator as well as a logical element that brings people together and sends them on their way with new vistas and experiences as the architecture continues to unfold and open up around them.

Benthem Crouwel's new station for The Hague
Benthem Crouwel's new station for The Hague features a patterned glass roof. Photo by Jannes Linders

Not all stations have to be so grand. UN Studio is taking the knowledge it gained from working on the Arnhem project for more than a decade to design transit stations in Qatar, while new underground stations with great promise are arising or tunnelling out in cities as far afield as Moscow and London (the Crossrail project) – this magazine has been collecting them for a while. In the Netherlands, Koen van Velsen's modest Breda Station is as elegant and encompassing as any of the grand projects, but appropriate to the smaller community it serves.

Beyond the stations, new railroad lines are also drawing communities together in ways we could have not imagined a generation ago. As high-speed trains crisscross Europe, they make the idea of living in one country, working in another, and going to a game or a concert in yet another seem completely natural.

In China, cities such as Shenzhen are building hundreds of new stations that knit together this insta-polis with an intensity and ease (despite horrific rush-hour crowding) that almost makes you forget that this underground weaving is what made London, Paris and New York work as big cities more than century ago.

Even Los Angeles has its new trains, which, starting this fall, will once again bring the beach and the mountains together with the rest of LA's sprawl. And, in South America, cable cars are connecting rich and poor to create what Alfredo Brillembourg, founder of Urban-Think Tank, says is "a diagonal city".

dzn_Liege-Gullemins-station-by-Santiago-Calatrava09
The Liege Gullemins station by Santiago Calatrava opened in 2009. Photo by ELTGV/Alain Janssens

For all these reasons, I would argue that our railroad stations are our contemporary architecture of democracy. They are open and accessible, they are shared spaces, they bring us together, and they celebrate all that gathering and connecting with grand and often beautiful structures.

Moreover, the best of these stations do so by adding, not editing. Unlike airports, they combine different scales and functions, juxtaposing them into urban collages. They are expressive, but not just as one big sweep or bulge. Unlike our other great new semi-public monuments, cultural institutions and stadia, you don't need a ticket to enter and they are not monocultures.

To look from the Arnhem knot one way into the parking garage and the other way to the bicycle storage, then up towards the ramps where pedestrians are hurrying by makes for a picture of urban excitement. The action takes place in spaces with the light and smells of the surroundings. The human scale and the metropolitan reach come together.

I do not mean to be naïve in my love of these new stations. I full well realise that they are in many ways glorified shopping malls that pay for circulation space by tithing Starbucks' and H&M's offerings and, as a result, at eye level what you see is an interior High Street.

I also realise that everywhere and all the time Big Brother is watching, restricting the actual amount of freedom you can find in train stations. There is little graffiti or busking in most stations these days, and that is a shame.

Yet somehow it still all comes together in the train station. Tickets to ride are relatively inexpensive, depending on where you are, and that is in itself democratising these engines of movement more than airports. Sooner or later, we all have to take the A Train, or the commuter express, even if we do not spring for the TGV.

The oath that grounded the French Revolution took place in a tennis court; revolutions used to take place on boulevards and public squares. Perhaps the next forms of democracy will appear from a flash mob among commuters under the sweeping arches and roofs of one of these new stations.

Main photograph is by Ronald Tilleman.


Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com, Beyond Buildings.

Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art(1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.