Train Station Architectural Design Fundamentals – Part 4 (Tough and Timeless Materials)
When it comes to train station materials, durability isn’t enough.
Every weekday, harried commuters clatter and bang their way through the typical train station. Their clasps, umbrellas, and coffee mugs scrape and grind against its walls. On weekends, the assault continues: downtown-bound families with children who love to roughhouse, skateboarders attempting new tricks. I’ve even seen a young man using a station wall to practice his fastball. Then there’s the weather . . . year after year of ice and rain and heat.
This constant abuse demands that a station be constructed of durable materials. However, material toughness is only half the battle. When community members plan for a train station, I encourage them to think about how that station’s going to look 20, 50, or even 100 years from now. That means choosing materials endowed with the qualities that enable the facility to not only stand up to the abuse, but also to age gracefully.
Masonry remains a personal favorite: brick and stone can endure a great deal from sources both human and natural. There’s no staining, shattering, denting, burning, molding, or warping. And there are no paints or coatings that need touch-ups.
The beauty of masonry lies in its human scale, surface texture, earthy colors, and timeless quality, which work together to give the station a warm, welcoming appeal. Color variations and surface depth become more pronounced as one gets closer to the facility. Also, a masonry building invites you to touch it, to feel the roughness of its brick, the grittiness of its mortar, the strength of its stone.
Copper is another effective train station material, particularly for features like gutters, downspouts, and even roofs. When it’s relatively new, copper has that rich tint and it glows orange when the setting sun illuminates it. After it’s exposed to the elements, copper naturally takes on a greenish patina that gives the station a dignified, historic look.
A Brick Wall or a Wall of Bricks?
One of the many benefits of masonry construction is the variation in color between bricks and joints. However, I often see buildings, some of them brand new and highly publicized, that have a uniform “brick wall.” The bricks have no variation, and the mortar color matches that of the brick. The wall reads as a monolithic whole and in some cases, looks like it has been painted.
A “wall of bricks,” on the other hand, usually consists of colored brick with natural off-white colored mortar. When mortar is a different color than brick, it helps highlight the individual modules and gives a better sense of scale. Then there are the endless possibilities for variation between the bricks themselves. I often find that a wall of bricks is more inviting than an imposing wall dominated by the same color.
Don’t Throw Away the Good Stuff
One reason that Americans love traveling to Europe is its abundant historic architecture. You might ask, “Why isn’t the US like that?” One answer is that Europeans have had a centuries-long head start. They know what works, and what doesn’t. Therefore, to put it simply, they preserved the good stuff and knocked down the bad stuff.
In many US communities, the train station symbolizes a connection to another era. Often, those stations, built of the very materials I’ve been discussing, are at the root of a conflict: they are revered by community members, but they’re also in a state of moderate to severe disrepair.
Sometimes leaders are tempted to knock down an old facility. However, if a station holds a place in the hearts of many community members, the answer may not be in demolition, but rather in a makeover. As populations grow and available land declines, historic preservation remains a wise option for recognizing and reenergizing our architectural successes.
A recent example of this is the Village of La Grange’s Stone Avenue Train Station. A decade ago, village leaders acknowledged that the facility had some issues with deterioration. Those same leaders, however, also recognized the 115-year-old station’s critical role in the village’s history, as well as how much residents valued it. So the village undertook a rehabilitation that was completed in 2014.
In October of this year, the Stone Avenue Train Station restoration became one of only nine projects in the state that Landmarks Illinois honored with a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award.
It’s All Connected
When the time comes for a new train station, communities have a couple options. One is to build a nondescript, purely functional box that meets an immediate need, demolish it in 20 years, and then do the same thing.
The other option is to construct a station that, 50 years from now, their children and grandchildren embrace with a sense of pride . . . and maybe even restore it!
The path to that second option is built with materials that are both strong and attractive. Yes, these materials hold the station together, but in another way, they also hold the community together.
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