(james benedict brown) on the road

Antwerp Centraal Station

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 15 June, 2008

My train journeys to and from Haarlem took my through the Belgian city of Antwerp. As with my journey to Haarlem last year, I was particularly intrigued by the briefest of glimpses this route gave me of Antwerp Centraal Station. On each passage through the city, I noticed that we passed deep under the city in an apparently new rail tunnel, and that the Centraal Station was a deep chasm of a structure made in concrete and illuminated glass columns. So for my return, I allowed some time to take a break in Antwerp to see a bit more.

First impressions on leaving the train on these new suberterranean platforms are striking. Four platforms have been carved into the ground deep below the city, and cunning use of recognisable escape symbols has turned blank precast concrete emergency stairs into bold and entertaining features. The flow of passengers leaving trains here is aided by a flood of natural light into these deep platforms. Lingering behind the crowds to watch my train pull out and to get a better sense of my macro-geography, I suddenly understand the ingenuity of this station.

Antwerp Centraal Station was once a south facing terminus of a line from Brussels. Through trains to the Netherlands either bypassed the city centre or had to add arduous minutes to their journey entering the dead end station and then reversing out again. A fantastically bold but somewhat beautifully simple solution was found. Approximately eight single level platforms under a period station roof were re-arranged: two remain on either side of the main station level, but a new opening in the centre of the station drops down to not one but two additional levels of train tracks. At the second level down, there are two pairs of terminating tracks under those above. At the third and lowest level down, two through tracks are now connected to a continuous north-south line that tunnels beneath the city. Two local terminating platforms flank these.

What is no doubt a hideously complex structural solution becomes clarity itself as passengers from arriving through trains ascend to street level. The transparent yet massive structure holds trains above one another, creating a spectacular theatre of arrivals and departures. I’d never really considered the actual dead weight of a train until I’d seen three of them above one other.

Reaching the uppermost level of the station (itself one storey above street level – the new design conveniently helps the flow of people in and out of the station by unifying access between the first and second levels) the beautiful structure of the train shed is preserved. From the angle above, the massive intervention is almost invisible. It made my return to London St. Pancras even more melancholic – despite the protestations of the architectural world that it has enjoyed a masterful conversion, I can’t help wishing that St. Pancras and the subterranean Thameslink (cross-London) lines had been as well integrated as those in Antwerp.

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