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Planning the Transit Hubs of the Future

What does the train station of the future look like? It’s a question that architects and urban planners must at least try to answer whenever they design new transit networks or terminals. Railway stations of the past are often beautiful (and occasionally loathed), but in a world where transit patterns and technology change rapidly, time is not typically kind to these expensive and inflexible pieces of infrastructure. The United States is littered with discarded rail and bus stations as architecturally charming as they are useless; even relatively recent cases such as that of Tel Aviv’s massive and famously misbegotten bus station, which opened in the 1990s, show we still haven’t learned our lesson.  

In seeking an answer, Caroline Bos, urban planner and co-founder of Dutch architecture and urban planning practice UNStudio, is better placed than most of her colleagues to tackle the question’s complexities.
Image credit: Citylab

Railway stations of the past are often beautiful (and occasionally loathed), but in a world where transit patterns and technology change rapidly, time is not typically kind to these expensive and inflexible pieces of infrastructure.

UNStudio recently created a visually striking vision of what a contemporary station might look like in the form of the new rail station in the Dutch city of Arnhem, completed in 2015. Bos’ UNStudio architect colleagues have also designed stations for the new metro system due to start operation in Greater Doha, Qatar, in 2019—one so radically different in appearance to Arnhem that it’s hard to believe the designs come from the same source. CityLab caught up with Bos after a talk at the reSITE 2017 conference in Prague last month, where she offered a few pointers as to how transit station designers should think about preparing for the future. 

Design for the future, now 

As Bos notes, an uncertain future means that infrastructure designers face a contradiction. On the one hand, they must create something that satisfies contemporary project commissioners and the public they cater to. On the other, they must also try to predict the needs of a time that in substantial ways will no longer resemble the present, where the bodies that initially commissioned the project may not even hold sway in the same form. “As architects and urban designers, we are familiar with the future to some extent,” she days. “But what about the disruptive effect of tech changes? Can we adapt our processes to adapt to unanticipated changes, find models of flexibility and resilience?”

Attempts to be entirely concrete about predicting changes that will be partly unforeseen are, of course, doomed to failure. Building a vast subterranean sea of parking at Paris’ Gare Montparnasse, for example, must have seemed prescient when it opened in 1969, but it’s now quite counter to the direction of the city’s anti-car policies and the way its leaders envision Paris functioning in the future. As Bos highlights, there are some key points architects and planners can take on board to ensure their designs remain fairly flexible.

Create no hierarchy of passengers 

Too often, bus or streetcar terminals are treated as embarrassing afterthoughts in transit hub design, shunted into second-rate, relatively remote quarters so as not to cramp the style of the big trains. This serves to perpetuate the idea that buses are a grubby, second-tier way of getting around and ignores the fact that most people who pass through major railway stations aren’t in fact there to take the train. This isn’t just poor planning, but disregards a trend that suggests city-level public transit will prove ever more dominant in the coming years. Bos and her colleagues kept this in mind when planning the new station at Arnhem, where plans had repeatedly stalled to replace a temporary station built after World War II. “At Arnhem, we thought not in terms of function—whether it was a railway station, a bus station or whatever—but in terms of people. Who used the building? At what time of day? And what for? By analyzing the site, we found that only 40 percent of people on site were actually taking trains.” 

This realization changed the way the space was mapped out. The architects placed the bus depot at the front of the station, granting its passengers equal billing and seamless access to rail platforms. Meanwhile the station hall, a dramatic, light-filled space arranged around a central spiral-like twist, becomes a place that is more public meeting place than a mere preamble to the actual platforms.

Don’t be pinned down by a single stakeholder 

This retooling of the relationship between different station users leads towards another point that could help secure enduring use for a station. If you consider the needs of a single client in isolation, you run an even greater risk of creating something that will easily become obsolete. This is certainly what happened with the international station created at Stratford in East London in time for the 2012 Olympics. Now that the Games have passed and the Eurostar service to continental Europe has decided not to stop there, it’s lost any justification for its size and sits grandly underused.

Balance the needs of a specific client or developer against other potentially conflicting forces and you’re more likely to create something future-proof. Arnhem Station is a good example of how this approach can change an outcome. It needed to be larger and more suited to contemporary use, but because the Netherlands has larger, busier cities than Arnhem, reconstruction of the existing station was relatively low on the list of priorities for Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the national rail carrier. UNStudio’s study, which revealed that less than half of the station’s users took the train, helped usher in a more dominant role for the city in the redesign, ultimately creating a station that was as much a public agora and pivot for its host city as a point of departure for elsewhere in the Netherlands. 

Bos sees this as a premonition of the way future developments should be considered: Architects must balance the needs of future users against those of the current owners, given that the building may need to outlast the brief the latter sets. “Ownership can be a business transaction,” she says. “It doesn't mean that you have the complete say in everything. Maybe that's a benefit of our time. Increasingly. younger people are less and less interested in owning things. People are more aware that use is what really counts.” 

Shifting the emphasis somewhat away from the site’s immediate owners isn’t in itself utopian or idealistic. It simply encourages a longer-term view that could ultimately secure a longer life for the site than if quick returns for the main investor are considered in isolation.  

Build in commercial units more carefully. 

It must be tempting for architects to envisage a station concourse as a pristine hall where arched ceilings or acres of sparkling glass catch the eye, rather than stores and kiosks. Creating a terminus with this kind of attitude, however, is to disregard reality in favor of an unsustainable purism. Usually such blank-slate spaces have commercial facilities inserted into them anyway, because they provide revenue and fulfill a need. If they are not factored in from the beginning they end up getting tacked on at the end of the construction process, in a way that is often visually and practically disruptive. “We've seen beautifully conceived airports and stations end up cluttered by kiosks, snack bars and little stores that have been put in later,” says Bos. “It’s often in an obstructive way that makes wayfinding more difficult for people whose sight lines are now disrupted.” 

Bearing this in mind, UNStudio built them integrally into the Arnhem Station design from the very beginning. Shops are either recessed or, at platform level, designed in a style that is harmonious with the station’s new roofs and supports. This leaves the main transfer hall, whose central twist avoids the need for sight-obstructing columns, as a singularly open space that is not only aesthetically distinctive but extremely easy to see across and find your way through. This reduces the need for signage that, while well-intentioned, can itself lead to further confusing visual clutter.

Develop a sense of local identity, but avoid cliché 

Stations are nonetheless more than pragmatic transit hubs to be designed solely with fluid movement in mind. They are social centers and expressions of civic identity that can boost or damage local pride (witness the agita that New Yorkers feel when they contemplate the demolition of the original Penn Station in 1963). As such, they work best when they balance efficiency with an aesthetic style that in some way distinctively reflects locality—something many existing stations actually fail to do. 

Quoting geographer Doreen Massey, Bos highlights this need to bolster a sense of place as a key issue: “How in the face of all the movement and intermixing, can we retain any sense of local place and its particularity?”

It’s easy enough to see what Massey is referring to. There’s something demoralizing about traveling the world and finding the same structures greet you at every port of call. At the same time efforts be international architects to respond to local tradition can often be superficial and resort to stereotypes. Bos acknowledges that this dilemma is not one to which there is an easy answer. “The issue of reflecting local character is such a sensitive one that I can feel my toes curling when I talk about it,” she says. “We risk entering cliché the moment we start talking about these things—here in Holland, we are forever stereotyped with tulips and windmills, for example.” 

The answer, Bos suggests, is to reference local culture without specifically quoting it. In Holland, she uses the example of one on UNStudio’s older structures, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam Harbor, as one that is inspired by the city’s quayside cranes without explicitly mirroring them.

Arnhem Station, meanwhile, demonstrates a quality that Bos sees as distinctively Dutch which came out more in the design process than in the finished product—the integration of design and technology. It is perhaps not for nothing that the ultimate cliché emblem of the Netherlands, the windmill, is both a beautiful structure and an early example of sophisticated, sustainable technology. “For us, it's almost impossible to see design and technology as separate from each other,” Bos says. “Parametric design and computer are something we use as a medium of integration between building technology and design.” 

In Qatar, the task of expressing a local identity as outsiders is more problematic. Qatar’s ancient culture is, Bos suggests, more deeply rooted in people and the way they are organized in society than in the built environment, as Doha’s dramatic transformation from fishing village to metropolis has occurred in less than a century. UNStudio’s principal architect on the project, Ben Van Berkel, nonetheless found ways of reflecting this local context without looking too much like a Cecil B. De Mille production of The 1,001 Nights. One source of inspiration for Doha’s new station was the Caravanserai—roadside inns for travelers once built across the Middle East and Central Asia that often had a low-slung structure of stacked arcades. Vaulted ceilings with ogee curves also feature, as do sparkling interior surfaces that resemble mother-of-pearl. These reference Qatar’s past as a pearl fishing center and, more subtly, the local tradition of nesting more lavish interiors within relatively plain, austere facades.

Despite the stark difference in appearance between stations in Doha and Arnhem, some distinctly subterranean influences from the past nonetheless shine through. Bos and her colleagues have long been admirers of New York’s Grand Central Station, whose influence can be seen in such details as the placement of direct light at the top of staircases to help people find their way. “We are inspired by the way you move through layers at Grand Central, the staircases, the topological landscape, and the strong slanting light.” 

The station of the future might thus end up looking a lot like some stations of the past. Indeed, as a current commuter hub whose appearance has come to be a repository of New York’s identity. Grand Central is an example of a locally distinctive station that has managed to stand the test of time and remain singularly adaptable. It seems that this adaptability, rather than any particular stylistic device or quick fix, may be the clearest marker of a station’s continuing usefulness as we lumber forth into an only partly illuminated future.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of “Planning the Transit Hubs of the Future” implied that Caroline Bos was the architect of UNStudio’s designs for the Qatar Integrated Rail System. She in fact led on the studio’s masterplan, while the principal architect was her colleague Ben Van Berkel. The article has been updated.

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