A New Direction for Rail Travel in Europe
Liege, Belgium: A City On the Brink of Revitalization?
At one time, the city of Liège, Belgium, located about 60 miles east of Brussels, conjured up images of a thriving city specializing in steel and crystal. But the collapse of the steel industry at the end of World War II deeply affected Liège, and the crystal factory which once employed over 4,000 now employs a mere 700. For history buffs, Liège may also bring to mind the Battle of Liège, the first battle of World War I and the opening battle of the German invasion into Belgium, during which Belgium was forced to surrender.
But, on September 18, 2009, a new image was presented to the residents of Liège along with the rest of the world, and it wasn’t one of a depressive economy or a historical battle that ended in surrender. Instead, it was one of sweeping arches; a perfect combination of utility and design; and a grand vision brought to life by architect, engineer and sculptor, Santiago Calatrava. On this very important day, the Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station was unveiled, marking the end of a 12 year project and marking the beginning of a significant turning point for the city of Liège.
A Symbol of Revitalization
On all levels, the station signifies evolution and transformation. Fully designed to accommodate today’s generation of high speed trains as well as generations of trains to come, the station makes Liège a major transportation hub connecting England, France, Belgium and Germany. Travel time to Aachen, Cologne and Brussels is only 20 minutes while the time required to travel between major European cities is drastically reduced (for example, 68 minutes will be gained between Brussels and Paris; 224 minutes between Brussels and London), making European travel quicker and easier.
Not only will the station bring Liège well into the 21st century as far as its transportation needs go but the design of the station and the notorious architect behind it all – whose previous work includes the Oriente railway station in Lisbon and the Athens Olympic Sports Complex and whose present work includes the World Trade Center Transportation Hub – places Liège firmly and squarely on the European map.
But the full ripple effect of the completion of such a major project is yet to come. The station is just the first phase of many projects in the works for the city of Liège. Buildings will be torn down to create a grand boulevard leading from the station straight to the river Meuse, a five-star hotel is being built behind the station, and a new media and shopping center will be constructed in a plot of land where a steel mill once stood.
Meanwhile, many more travelers are sure to pass through Liège, both for work and for leisure. There will be a new energy and purpose that will define Liège as a European city of importance.
The Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station
The thoughtfully designed Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station is the obvious creation of both an architect and engineer. The clear, open use of the space is purposely done so that natural light hits all areas of the station. In addition, the previous station had divided the city into two distinct parts, resulting in one side falling into an increasingly depressed state. Calatrava aimed to unite the two sides, bringing prosperity and life to both. “The station should not be a barrier between one side of the city and the other,” says Calatrava. “More than that, the station should connect both parts.”
The station also incorporates Liège’s natural elements in order to capture the beauty and culture of the area. Pressed up against the Cointe Hill, a famous landmark in Liège, the station is designed to follow the general curve of the hill. The station is also constructed using a special bluestone throughout its structure, including the floor paving, the cobbles of the plaza and special elements such as the benches. This is the same stone that can be found in several centuries old buildings in the city such as the Hotel de Ville. “We made the foundation of this station in a traditional material that lives throughout the city,” says Calatrava.
And while the station is sure to make travel more efficient, Calatrava designed the space to become a destination point in and of itself. Shops and special vitrines for art have been purposely included in the station’s design to encourage travelers to linger and entice non-travelers to visit. “We think that art [should] be brought closer to the people and that the art, itself, will not only dignify the station but it will show that there are other places in the city that are interesting to visit and to see,” says Calatrava. “So the station will become a vitrine and a show window of the city itself.”
While the final product is breathtaking, the effort to make it all happen was what Calatrava describes as “an enormous challenge.” The roof is supported by inverse pyramids of stainless steel. Part of the highway leading to the station had to be dismantled and rebuilt in order to make room for the addition of a necessary tunnel and strict orders were given that the entire project had to be done without disrupting regular train service, requiring some of the roof to be completed between the hours of midnight and 4:00 am.
The city was abuzz in the days leading up to the significant unveiling. The discussion was open to varying opinions regarding Calatrava’s design. While many marveled at the station’s architectural magnificence and were proud that Liège was now home to such an innovative station, others questioned whether Liège, a city of 400,000, really needed a station of such grandeur and whether it was a good thing that Liège would be positioned on the map in such a way.
But on September 18, 2009, as the Prince of Belgium arrived by train and tens of thousands gathered in front of the station to witness what was sure to become a historical moment for the city of Liège, all debates ceased. For the station, which had been teeming with construction workers the day before and even the morning of, had all come together and now demanded recognition and appreciation. After 12 years of thoughtful design and challenges surmounted, the station was, without a doubt, an architectural masterpiece.
And as if the unveiling of the station wasn’t breathtaking enough, a special performance by the Franco Dragone Entertainment Group, the company behind the Cirque du Soleil, had been created especially for the inauguration. As night fell, the special never-seen-before-show got underway. And that’s when the station came alive with music and lights and a spectacular performance that involved acrobatic stunts and full use of the station’s entrance and ceiling, which were fully integrated into the show. A fireworks display served as the grand finale. And throughout the evening’s festivities, the trains arrived right on schedule, uninterrupted.
Calatrava has officially moved onto his next project, the television reporters, journalists and photographers have left in search of the next event and the next press conference. But, with the completion of the Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station, the more than 1,000-year-old city of Liège will be forever transformed.
Whether your travels take you to Liège for business or pleasure, when the train arrives in the station, be sure to pause a moment to look out through the entrance of the station where you’ll see a vaulted roof and canopies that form a balcony. Look through the station and to the city beyond and you’ll find that the design of the station frames Liège as if looking at a postcard of the city. Enjoy Calatrava’s ingenuous foresight and appreciate his vision because, as with every detail of the station, this postcard framing of the city was done intentionally.
What awaits the city of Liège now that the station is completed and the high speed train network is well underway? Will Liège live up to its potential as a true international transportation hub? Only time will tell for sure, but one thing that’s certain is that Calatrava has left an indelible mark on the city and his work will be admired by many.
About the Author: Sara Wilson is currently working as a freelance writer and lives in Spain with her husband. She has kept a record of her adventures living abroad which you can find on her blog: http://sarawilson.wordpress.com. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.