The most popular modern building in Beijing these days is not the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Nor is it the futuristic new titanium-and-glass opera house—known as "The Egg"—or the much-vaunted new terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport. According to a recent survey of Beijing citizens, the most popular contemporary structure in the Chinese capital today is actually a throwback symbol of industrial development: the railway station. Beijing South, completed last year, is bold, airy, and spacious enough to fit a jumbo jet between the columns that support the central hall. And it is designed to accommodate China-size crowds increasingly lured by the comfort and efficiency of high-speed rail travel: by 2030 the station is expected to handle 105 million passengers a year, 50 percent more than the total for Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport.
After a half century of decline, the train station is back in fashion. If the airport represented glamour and speed for the postwar traveler, the megastation is the symbol of a new age of urban renewal and planet-friendly travel. The latest generation of sleek new high-speed trains, capable of reaching 350 kilometers an hour with 1,000 passengers aboard, demand an architecture of corresponding style and scale. "The idea of grandeur in a railway station is something that we had almost lost, but it's coming back with a vengeance," says Paul Finch, the chairman of Britain's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. "These days stations are almost as big as airports."
Ask any big-league architect. Terry Farrell, who designed Beijing South, has no new airport terminals on his books, but he's been busy with stations from South Africa to India and Hong Kong. Norman Foster, architect of Beijing's latest airport terminal, is also working on a set of stations for the new high-speed link that will whisk pilgrims between Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The giant HOK firm, known for designing some of the world's grandest sports stadiums, has drawn up plans for a proposed transportation hub in Anaheim, California, which will include the first railway station in the state's proposed high-speed system.
These are hardly grim, utilitarian structures. The new high-speed station at Liège in Belgium, by architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, ranks as a destination in itself, with its vast, swooping canopy of glass—measuring 25 meters high by 200 meters long—covering the center section of the platforms. The symmetrical design dispenses altogether with the idea of a conventional façade, opening up the building for admiration from all sides. The spectacular curved outline of Beijing South deliberately evokes the upturned roofs of traditional Chinese architecture, evident in the 15th-century Temple of Heaven that stands nearby. Similarly, the new Voie Sacrée station in Meuse, France, is designed to fit discreetly into its surroundings, boasting a giant wooden spire to suggest links with the churches in the nearby countryside and with the local timber industry.
Architects have been eagerly re-inventing the station as a green "multimodal" hub—incorporating buses, trams, and taxis—at the heart of city life. Advances in technology allow architects to ram home the station's eco-merits. The French state rail operator, SNCF, which is promoting an "eco-mobility" campaign, has plans for more than 400 new sustainable stations, some with vegetation on the roofs, solar panels for electricity, and rainwater-collection systems. The design of Farrell's new station in Delhi also allows for the collection of rainfall. Panels in the roofs of some Chinese stations gather energy for the grid.
The best stations convey a sense of rail's old romance. Critics have heaped praise on London's St. Pancras station, a Victorian terminus remodeled as the home for the Eurostar high-speed link with France. It features an outsize statue of a kissing couple above the concourse, not to mention the world's longest champagne bar. "The old functionalism has been replaced by a sense of celebration and giving pleasure in travel," says Brian Edwards, an authority on transport design who teaches at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
It's pleasure with a purpose. Unlike an airport out in the distant suburbs, an elegant new station, bang in the city center, can do extra service as a handy means of impressing a new and more demanding clientele, who want the same comfort and style that they have grown to associate with long-distance travel. Like airlines, high-speed trains run in-frequently, so there's plenty of time to kill in the retail and dining outlets many new stations offer. Berlin's vast new Central Station, which opened in 2006, has been described as a shopping center with a rail connection: it boasts at least 15 restaurants and cafés. "All the business guys who once took the plane are now taking the train, and they have different expectations," says Andreas Heym, chief architect of AREP, the station-design subsidiary of SNCF responsible for more than 100 new depots worldwide. "The station becomes like a business card for the city."
By that measure, Calatrava's landmark contribution to Liège won't be just an elegant hub; it should also spur regeneration of a city blighted by the collapse of its steel industry. "It was my goal to create a 21st-century transportation facility that would not only unite Liège with the rest of Europe, but would also serve as a symbol of the city's renewal," Calatrava said. "The project, as a whole, creates a new gateway into Liège and reestablishes a relationship with the city." The Berlin station, the biggest rail junction in Europe, was conceived in the euphoria that accompanied reunification, and stands symbolically on a patch of what was once a no man's land between East and West Berlin.
To the champions of rail, that signals a return to a happier past. In its 19th-century heyday, the railway station doubled as an ornate expression of confidence in progress and the industrial age. Cities took pride in the splendor of the stations and the use of the latest materials, vaulting vast spaces with cast iron. "Soaring train sheds—the cathedrals of the industrial age—weren't just a way of allowing the smoke to dissipate," says Steven Parissien, author of a study of railway architecture. "They were metaphorically and literally the hubs of the city."
Such confidence couldn't survive the advent of the car and the airplane. For the postwar generation, the airport terminal better expressed the future than any train station. At New York's Idlewild (now JFK) airport, for instance, Eero Saarinen's daring 1962 TWA terminal was a concrete shell that exemplified the new age of flight. To developers, the hulking and underused train stations shrieked for demolition. Among the victims: New York's magnificent Penn Station, which vanished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden. A new subterranean station was built to replace it, prompting Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully to remark: "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."
But technology has come full circle. To a green-minded generation of politicians, high-speed rail represents a clean alternative to air travel. By 2020, the French plan to double the size of their high-speed network to 3,000 kilometers, while Spain aims to have more than 6,000 kilometers completed by the same date. Those plans are dwarfed by China, which is constructing a 16,000-kilometer high-speed network linking all its major cities. Even in America, home of the automobile, the railway is edging back into favor. Earlier this year President Obama announced a "long overdue" plan to develop high-speed lines, with 10 potential rail corridors. In much of Europe, high-speed rail has already supplanted air travel; these days it's difficult to find a flight between Paris and Brussels.
Not that rail passengers won't benefit from the legacy of air travel. Architects have learned much from designing those lofty airport terminals. As at airports, modern train stations often separate the arrival and departure areas to speed the flow of passengers. Besides, there's a new convergence at work as transportation planners seek to persuade airport-bound passengers to leave their cars at home. As far back as 1994, Calatrava helped to establish his reputation through his work on the daring bird-shaped railway station at Lyon airport for the new high-speed line. Among Farrell's past projects is the giant Incheon Airport Transportation Center in South Korea, where passengers can choose to board an intercity, airport, or light-rail train. Rail is back, even at the airport.