Most times a train station is just somewhere you pass through, without glancing at much more than the departure boards. Not the Liège-Guillemins railway station in Belgium, though, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Its futuristic design stops people in their tracks, so to speak, and if you miss your train or your train is delayed, you have a work of art to explore.
In fact if your train is late there's also an art gallery built into the station's design. After the station opened in September 2009, one of the first shows featured the work of Salvador Dali. The very first exhibition was 'I was 20 in 1914', a title which speaks for itself. This was so successful there was a sequel, 'I was 20 in the 1960s', followed by the current show, 'I will be 20 in 2030'.
The station was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who is also a sculptor and a painter. Among his other creations are Bilbao Airport, the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the Milwaukee Art Museum and other train stations like the Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupéry in Lyon and the Eastern Train Station in Lisbon.
The creation of the station in Liège came about when the Belgian authorities decided to link Brussels, Antwerp and Liège on a high-speed train network which connected them with the rest of Europe's high-speed train system. The problem was that the platforms at the existing Liège station were curved, making it impossible for non-stopping high-speed trains to pass through. In addition, the old station built in the 1960s was simply not capable of handling the expected increase in passengers. So a new station was commissioned about 150m away.
The old station has been described as a 1960s shoebox which, apart from the platforms, was nothing but straight lines. By contrast the new station, which cost €312 million, has barely a straight line in it. The architect said the design was inspired by his wife, and from certain angles you can see the curving shapes resembling the curving body of a reclining woman. They also reflect the shapes of the hills behind the station, which can be seen from certain places inside the station thanks to the 11,000 pieces of glass used in its construction.
The platforms also have glass bricks in them, which allows natural light through all the way to the ground floor areas. The station is on three levels: ground floor, platforms, and an upper level of walkways and a second entrance. Arrive on foot and you enter on the ground floor. Arrive by car and you approach the rear of the station on the 3rd level and drive right into the car park.
Unlike some futuristic building designs, the Liège-Guillemins station works perfectly in a practical way. The architect's desire was to allow people to flow through the station as efficiently as possible. The platforms are 8m wide to allow for maximum space. Three of the five platforms are 450m long, the other two are 350m.
This remarkable structure also meant that journey time from Liège to Brussels was reduced to 39 minutes, putting Belgium's 3rd most populous city within commuting distance of the capital. It also now makes for an easy day-trip from Brussels, and amongst other things it has several museums, the biggest and oldest market in Belgium, the palace of the Prince-Bishops of Liège and a cathedral which dates back to the 10th century. And a very 21st-century train station.