Train station translation: contemporary architecture
Capture the here and now: why contemporary train station design is such a hard sell … and how it marks our place in the Digital Age
Thus far, my Train Station Translation series has covered traditional design styles, from the European-inspired American Colonial style to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style. The series concludes with an exploration of a style that tends to polarize community members perhaps more so than any other: contemporary.
Many years ago, I attended a village board meeting to present a contemporary train station design concept. The speaker before me, a school district superintendent, explained how his district needed to drastically change its curriculum to better suit students. The board and audience responded with wholehearted approval. Great, I thought, they’ll love my design. I was wrong.
As soon as I finished, someone said, “I don’t like new architecture.” Similar opinions followed. I ended up giving my concept a redo in a more traditional vein.
When it comes to the latest version of a cell phone or fitness tracker, people will jump through hoops to get it. Try to introduce a contemporary train station design and people get tied up in knots. Why? Build a mediocre traditional train station, and very few community members complain. But introduce a contemporary station that strays from the norm and watch out! Why?
I believe the answers to these questions hark back to one reality: people are comfortable with the things they know. If, however, we delve deeper into train station design considering today’s norms, the idea of a contemporary design becomes less of a pariah and more of a symbol of progress.
Everything Instant: The Anatomy of a Contemporary Station
In this Digital Age/Information Age, technology gives us answers. Fast. The word “instant” is everywhere: instant access, instant results, instant cash, instant support, Instant Gaming. This emphasis on efficiency drives the need for clarity and simplicity without sacrificing quality.
The contemporary train station design vocabulary responds with clean, simple geometries. Long, horizontal lines suggest movement. Abundant glass invites natural light to create a lively interior and a sense of security for those inside. Floating planes debulk more traditional design to suggest a sense of weightlessness. If designed correctly, the contemporary station looks larger yet lighter than its traditional counterparts.
The contemporary station design also responds to the changing requirements of this building type. Among today’s expectations are security, openness, sustainability, and operational and functional efficiency … all accommodated through a contemporary vocabulary.
Contemporary Design Vocabulary
- Simple geometries
- Long, horizontal lines
- Liberal use of glass
- Floating elements
- Security through visibility
- Clear lines of circulation
- Integration of sustainability
Overcoming the Aesthetic Hurdle
Many stations that I’ve designed lean toward a traditional style — that is what their communities felt comfortable with. While I admire the beauty of traditional architecture and understand the draw toward it, I remain an enthusiastic advocate of contemporary design. Architecture gives communities an opportunity to express their own moment in time. What better way of carrying forth that moment than the contemporary train station?
Progress means change. If Frank Lloyd Wright was alive today, would he still be doing Prairie style? I doubt it — he would have evolved his designs to capture the times. And what happens when the U.S. starts operating bullet trains like those in Europe and Asia? Imagine one of these trains, pushing 200 miles per hour, pulling into a traditional train station. Doesn’t that seem out of place?
Another benefit of the contemporary style is its ability to underscore sustainability initiatives. Environmental advocates have long promoted commuter trains as an energy-efficient alternative to automobiles. The station should reflect that. This is not to say that a traditional station cannot incorporate energy-efficient measures, but the contemporary style calls attention to them. This may be enough to push some communities over that aesthetic hurdle.
Another way for communities and architects to overcome resistance to contemporary design is to merge more traditional materials with a modern aesthetic. People might find a station much more approachable if it has elements of brick, stone, or even wood along with glass, concrete, and metal.
Case Study: Buildings as Landscape
The Village of Clarendon Hills’ (Illinois) new station, designed by Legat, exemplifies sympathetic and sustainable contemporary station design. The concept of “buildings as landscape” drove the design. Thus, the facility does not call attention to itself, yet it manages to reflect the village’s aspirations and distinctiveness.
The retaining walls and bases of the shelter structures are concrete cast against wood boards to provide a rich, natural texture. Glass and aluminum panels feature vertical wood battens to provide solar shading while relating back to natural materials and the texture of the concrete. Shelter roofs planted with ground covers and native grasses manage rainwater, reduce the urban heat island effect, and beautify the structure.
The landscaping, dominated by prairie plantings native to Illinois, achieves a more naturally historic appearance and creates interest in all seasons. Bioswales and rain gardens manage stormwater onsite with limestone outcroppings and native wetland plantings to minimize erosion and maximize the absorption of rainwater.
The Clarendon Hills station speaks to a tech-savvy, efficient community that values its moment in time and its impact on the ecosystem.
Case Study: Plaisance Renaissance
For years, the 59th Street/University of Chicago station on Chicago’s South Side was little more than a hut not visible from the street below.
A replacement station will reflect train travel in the 21st century and capitalize on its prominent location at the Midway Plaisance (aka the Midway), a cherished public park surrounded by the University of Chicago’s renowned buildings.
The 59th Street station will become one of the most prominent stops on Metra’s Electric Line. The headhouse’s continuous glass wall will display the station’s surroundings and offer views into the station.
An Expression of Connection
No art form is so intimately experienced by the public as architecture. If people don’t like a book or a song, they can close it or turn it off. Architecture is different: People have to exist in it. They have to walk up to, around, and within it. They have to participate in the art and respond to it.
The train station is an art form that many people experience. Here in Illinois, our history is immersed in rail transportation. Trains played a critical role in establishing Chicago’s reputation as the nucleus of the state and the entire Midwest. The train station is an expression of connections … between villages and cities … between residents and commuters … between municipalities and the citizens they serve.
Some communities prefer a train station style that evokes an earlier time. If that is the case, staying true to the vocabulary of a style is critical. Otherwise, the station becomes a watered-down version — it speaks a vocabulary that nobody understands and celebrates a moment in time that never existed.
Other communities elect to adopt a contemporary style. They believe a modern vocabulary solidifies and celebrates the here and now, their own place in time.
As trains travel from city to city, they emit a variety of sounds and yet, it’s the silent station that speaks the loudest. The station speaks to the people. Now … what do you want your station to say?
Contact us to learn more about architectural styles or train station design, or read Ted’s other posts about transportation facilities:
- Prairie Architecture
- American Arts and Crafts Architecture
- Richardsonian Romanesque Architecture
- American Colonial Architecture
- A Lesson in Design Vocabularies
- Enriching the Civic Landscape
- Accessibility: Making the Grade with Universal Design
- Tough and Timeless Materials
- An Activity Node
- Safety Above All Else
- A Community Model