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French lessons: backed by political will and financial muscle, France's high-speed rail system, with its sleek new stations and infrastructure, is reshaping the country's geography.

Compared with Britain's fragmented, dawdling, underfunded rail system, which has become the despair of those who use it, French railways are a paradigm of progress, ambition and efficiency. Shrinking train journey times have contrived to reconfigure the map of France, a fact proudly trumpeted by the SNCF in its advertising campaigns, which shows the country's main north-south axis shortened and cinched in like a Dior wasp waist. Just over twenty years have passed since the first high-speed track was laid between Paris and Lyons cutting journey times between France's two main cities. In 1989 the Atlantic link to Bordeaux and Nantes was inaugurated and by the mid '90s, the connection extended northwards to Brussels and London. Plans for an eastern link to Strasbourg and Munich are under way, due for completion in 2006. French political and cultural enthusiasm for its TGV system has an almost evangelical fervour. When the Channel route was being planned, municipal representatives of Amiens and Lille fought bitte rly for the right to have the line pass through their towns (Lille won, AR September 1993). This attitude contrasts starkly with their English counterparts, whose prevarication and animosity has consistently bogged down the progress of high-speed tracks through Kent to London.

The most recent phase of TGV expansion is to the south, from Lyons through Provence to Marseilles, bringing the sybaritic attractions of the Cote d'Azur tantalizingly closer. Passenger numbers have increased by 30 per cent with a consequent uplifting impact on the economy of the south. The journey from Paris to Marseilles now takes a mere 3 hours (compared with 4 hours 20 minutes) and Paris-Avignon 2 hours 40 minutes (down from 3 hours 20 minutes). To cover the equivalent distance of Paris-Marseilles by train in the UK takes between 5 and 6 hours. Built on a predominantly straight alignment, with no road crossings, the new line also merges with conventional track, cutting travel times to towns such as Nice, Monaco and Perpignan.

Plans for the Mediterranean connection were first put forward in 1989 and ten years later work began on constructing 250km of track, 17 000m of viaducts, 12 800m of tunnels and three new showpiece stations at Valence, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. In June 2001 the line opened. Such an impressive pace of development could not be sustained without concerted political and financial backing -90 per cent of the cost of 3.8 billion euros came from Reseau Ferre de France (RFF), the state company set up in 1997 specifically to oversee and develop railway infrastructure. The remaining ten per cent was met by the government and a further 5 billion euros has been budgeted until 2006 for the maintenance of existing lines. Compared with the muddle and disillusionment of British rail privatization, the French approach of state control and state subsidy not only safeguards the efficient running and expansion of the network, but also ensures consistent standards of design across the board, from bollards to buildings, viaducts to trains. Though those of a free market persuasion might deride this as the wasteful excesses of government, the French regard such investment as a legitimate expression of serious, long-term planning and thinking about transport, the environment and architecture.

This concern is clearly manifest in the three new stations (considered in greater detail on the following pages), but these are just part of a wider programme of infrastructure, landscaping and product design. Driving a high-speed rail line through picturesque but fragile ecologies required great sensitivity to minimize visual and acoustic intrusion. In this case, existing landscape determined the form of the track, not the other way around, and great attention was paid to the design of rails, sleepers and trains to reduce noise. The new stations were designed by Jean-Marie Duthilleul and Etienne Tricaud of AREP, the in-house architectural division of SNCF. Duthilleul's experience of station design is formidable -- among his many commissions is Lille Europe (AR March 1996), on which he collaborated with Rem Koolhaas. His latest buildings are modest presences in the Provencal landscape rather than monumental gestures, yet they are all inventive and dignified, true expressions of the civilizing power of twenty- first century rail travel.

VALENCE STATION

Strategically situated to the north-east of the town, the new TGV station at Valence is a key element in a regional road and rail transport hub. At its north end, the station intersects with the regional rail line (TER); at its south end, slip roads connect with a motorway link to Valence. The surrounding countryside is part agricultural, part industrial and it is anticipated that the improved transport links will help to boost the local economy. Of the three stations, it is the only one to handle the same volume of incoming and outgoing passengers and this symmetry of flow finds expression in the building form.

Drawing on traditional precedents of the metal and glass train shed, the station is a long glazed volume that seems to hover lightly over the tracks and platforms dug into a cutting 7m below. The upper level houses the station concourse, with the usual ticket and information outlets, refreshment stops, shops and services. The elongated glass box of the concourse is supported on a tubular steel structure (painted a cheerful red) that rests on concrete walls dividing the tracks. From the concourse there are good views out over the surrounding landscape to the hills at Vercours. Connecting with the landscape is another common theme of the new stations, so that they cease to become closed, insular domains (like many central city stations) and instead contrive to convey some notion of place.

Careful attention has been paid to the route down to the platforms, to engender a sense of arrival and anticipation. The concourse is linked to the surrounding car park by a series of bridges that traverse the outer tracks and slash at various angles into the flank of the central glass box. On each side, the bridges are sheltered by flat roofed canopies that extend the length of the station like side aisles. From the concourse, glass lifts and timber stairs wind down to the platform level, in an almost Piranesian tableau of crissing and crossing. At platform level, the lightness and lucidity of the glass concourse is exchanged for the more brooding atmosphere of massive concrete walls and the muscular rhythm of the steel structure. Much of the station's appeal is based on watching and being watched as passengers ebb and flow through the spaces -- at busy times the bridges, stairs and concourse are thronged with people in the bustling human choreography of daily travel. C. S.

Architect

AREP, Paris

Project team

Jean-Marie Duthilleul, Etienne Tricaud, Marcel Bajard, Pierre Saboya, Jean-Pierre Lequeux

Structural engineers

NG AH, SGTE, OTH

Landscape architect

Desvigne & Dalnoky

Photographs

Paul Raftery/VIEW

AVIGNON STATION

Avignon's new station lies to the south-west of the town on the edge of a tributary of the Rhone. To the west, the TGV line sweeps over the Rhone itself by means of a huge new viaduct designed by engineer-architect Jean-Francois Blassel and landscape architect Michel Desvigne, just one in a series of strikingly bold infrastructural elements on the new line. In form and execution, Avignon station is equally bold, a 400m long upturned ship's hull gently curving along the track, its shape a dramatic response to the climatic exigencies of the baking Provencal sun and the fierce mistral wind. It also responds to the difference in passenger flows -- 80 per cent of its passengers are heading north from the south of France, so the station is a stage for the more subdued rituals of departure rather than arrival.

Elevated 7m above ground level on an embankment, the building has two separate parts housing departures and arrivals connected by a subway underneath the tracks (as opposed to the single concourses of Valence and Aix-en-Provence). The much larger departures pavilion is contained in the sweeping volume of the upturned ship's hull. Handling only 20 per cent of traffic, the arrivals pavilion is, of necessity, much smaller, and is housed in a simple steel and glass structure with direct access to the platforms.

The hull of the departures pavilion has two contrasting facades: on the south side, a thick hermetic wall of white sandstone keeps the heat of the sun at bay, while on the northern platform side, the hull is glazed to provide protection from the mistral.

Departing passengers arrive at lower level and make their way up to the platforms either by escalators, lifts or the more leisurely promenade of a long ramp. At platform level, travellers generally wait inside, sheltered from the wind, but are still able to apprehend and connect with their surroundings. Lined with horizontally slatted timber, the southern part of the vault rises in a taut arch to meet its glazed other half. The vault gently curves along its length, giving the illusion of going on for ever. The clear glass skin on the north side brings cool north light down into the graceful, airy vault, casting a mesmerizing pattern of rippling shadows along its length. Like Valence, Avignon is another imaginative reworking of the archetypal train shed, albeit intelligently customized to the testing demands of the Provencal climate. C. S.

Architect

AREP, Paris

Project team

Jean-Marie Duthilleul, Etienne Tricaud, Marcel Bajard, Francois Bonnefille, Pierre Alliott

Structural engineers

RFR, Serete, Ingerop

Landscape architect

Desvigne & Dainoky

Photographs

Paul Raftery/VIEW

AIX STATION

The southernmost of the three new stations is at Aix-en-Provence, lying to the south-west of the town halfway between Aix and Marseilles and within striking distance of Marseilles airport. Here on the Arbois plain the rocky terrain is almost primeval, scoured and bleached by the intense Provencal sun. In the distance is the craggy hump of Mont Sainte-Victoire, immortalized in paintings by Cezanne. Conceived as a great wave-shaped roof that slowly swells and recedes over the tracks and concourse below, the new station is a singular, almost topographic, gesture in the landscape. Supported on a double row of timber columns that either grow or shrink in height following the curve of the roof, this monumental pagoda seems to float, disembodied, above the plain.

The main entrance to the station concourse lies on the west side of the building, signified by a slight bulge as the glass side wall curves outward. The glass is protected by an external layer of timber louvres, giving the building a rustic quality, that mitigates heat build-up and glare. The east wall is clad in clear glass, with views out to Mont Sainte-Victorie, precisely framed in the distance in the manner of Japanese borrowed landscape. The station is surrounded by flat, symmetrical swathes of car parking united by an oval ringroad that crosses the tracks to the north and south of the station on two new road bridges. Buses and cars also run in tunnels beneath the building.

Here, the TGV tracks run at ground level, perhaps limiting the opportunity for the expression of routes and changes of level that characterized the other stations, but there is still drama to be had in the glass bridges slung at upper level across the tracks and mezzanine level waiting areas, that offer good opportunities for people watching.

The huge curved roof is clad in lightweight aluminium panels and supported on a series of V-shaped tubular steel members that dock into metal plates on the tops of the chunky timber columns. The surface of the roof is studded with small square rooflights and its ribbed underside is painted white, heightening the pervading sense of lightness. Although very different formally from Valence and Avignon, Aix is an equally thoughtful response to site, climate and programme. C. S.

Architect

AREP. Paris

Project team

Jean-Marie Dutchilleul, Etienne Tricaud, Marcel Bajard, Eric Dussiot, Gerard Planchenault

Structural engineer

Arcora

Landscape architect

Desvigne & Dalnoky

Photographs

Paul Raftery/VIEW
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1968
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