De onzichtbare HST. De Hogesnelheidstrein in Antwerpen / The invisible HST. The High-Speed Train in Antwerp


In Antwerp, the railway is responsible for a substantial breach in the city. After boring its way through the Singel in the south-east, the railway line carves a long arc out of the perimeter of the nineteenth-century ring, eventually connecting up with the seaport and the Netherlands in the north. A branch line of this inner-city rail loop links up with the Central Station that was erected close to the medieval heart of the city, just outside the sixteenth-century ramparts and right in the former field of fire. As such, the terminal occupied a central position within the enlarged urban area that was extended to the Singel round about this time. Nonetheless, both the location and the decision to make it a terminal remained controversial. The dispute went on for decades. Several ideas, including that of a north-south link, above- or underground, continued to smoulder. The rail loop and its appendage together form a sickle-shaped rail body almost 6 metres high and of varying breadth. The systematic elevation of the track made it possible to create smooth and safe connections between the districts on either side of the railway line. At the same time, however, this radical solution created a categorical spatial boundary between the districts on either side of the track. It seemed only natural, therefore, to design the railway bridges literally as gateways. In each case they provide access to a different world: the Art Nouveau oasis of Zurenborg, with its celebrated Cogels Osylei boulevard; the frenetic diamond district, with its sparkling jewellers’ windows along Pelikaanstraat. A gateway too far and oops, you land up in the zoo, that other fantasy world of Antwerp.
The alien rail body divides the city then, delimits the city quarters. It acts as an internal town rampart and, in an attempt at integration, was turned into a monumental and architectural component of the urban landscape. The retaining walls, formed by a sedate sequence of bridges and huge brick arches (mosaic vaults, each depicting a different scene), are topped by a parade of little towers that introduce scale and rhythm. The intervention works, both from the city and from the railway domain: a stage-managed joyful entry for the train passenger. All that is missing are the fluttering flags.
So, in what must count as an unheard-of feat of eclectic urbanism, the lumpen rail body was duly integrated into the city. The station building (by Lacenserie, 1895-1905) with its majestic steel platform roof, provides the rail body with a crown, a head. The rail dam slides into the station and offers a frame for the rite of travelling. Today, this complex condition (station and dam, head and body) is so familiar that it is cherished. It is a fully appropriated piece of absurd singularity: a monument to hyperbole, Antwerp.1)

Centre and periphery, beyond the apes

With the realization of the railway dam and the building of Central Station, oriented exclusively on Astridplein and De Keyserlei (which runs into the Meir and thence to the medieval town centre), the city acquired a front and a back. From that moment, irrefutably, De Keyserlei and the Meir became the new centre, clearly defined and crowned by the Boeren tower and the station. The Meir metamorphosed from a genteel residential street into a popular commercial thoroughfare.2) The long, slightly curved space filled up with bustle, diversion and a fashionable parade past shop windows, among them the glitzy Innovation department store. One by one, the stately old houses were ousted. And sure enough, cinemas made their appearance, too. In the intimacy of these plush palaces people from all walks of life were swept along by the spell of modernity. Antwerp became the Meir.
The result was that the equally centrally situated zone to the east of the Central Station branch line was reduced to the status of periphery. This screened-off area no longer really belonged to the city proper. To make matters worse, it was also behind the Zoo (an exotic attraction that settled into the backland behind the railway), with its stalls, smells, service areas, rear entrances and the ‘Ommeganckstraat’. The back of beyond: the residue of the city, the remnants. Today the area is characterized by banal ordinariness interspersed with untidy wasteland. Also inserted smack in the middle of this area is the Switel hotel block, its entrance tucked away between the kitchen block (camouflaged in aluminium sheeting) and a filling station. A little further along, a big old building is occupied by the municipal social services department. In short, a precarious inner periphery, an inherent indecisiveness, with all the charm and drabness that persistent nonchalance can produce. It can go any which way, except anywhere in particular. Ten years ago the Vlaamse Gemeenschap moved into the new Copernicus office complex here. Ostentatious cliché, but functional and cheap. An icon of Flemish policy.

Clean Urbanism

In the not too distant future, this entire complex condition, which has made Antwerp so distinctive, will be thoroughly shaken up by the passing of the High Speed Train (HST).3) The absurdly expensive and simplistic pipe-dream of an underground North—South link was dragged out of hibernation for the occasion. It was evidently thought unnecessary to consider any alternatives. The sensible lines of thought set out by Studio Open Stad in 1993,4) and the suggestions made by Richard Plunz’s students for other locations along the rail loop (Station Dampoort, for example), in which economy was coupled to the development potential of the nineteenth-century ring, were never considered during the decision-making process. In an unguarded moment, and as if he were the European reincarnation of Robert Moses,5) the then minister of transport, Jean Luc Dehaene (nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’), pushed through the option of total undertunnelling plus retention of the present Central Station and the entire railway dam. Provocative initiatives à la Stad aan de Stroom,6) visionary one-liners like those of Luc Deleu, – they all got short shrift.
For the problematical nineteenth-century Antwerp ring it is a lost opportunity; a vital injection of adrenaline has been permanently denied it. The unhappy combination of undertunnelling and total preservation of the monumental railway dam is, of course, the height of illogicality. It means that a gigantic obstacle – for that is what the railway dam in fact is – cannot be removed, or at the very least be given a new meaning. So, no recharged artefact, nor any emendation of the city by the rail tunnel as happened in Rotterdam,7) but instead a complete stalemate. The dam has, after all, lost most of its raison d’être: most of the tracks (and by definition all the important through lines) will go underground in the present project. An embarrassing, but oddly beautiful hunk of uselessness is destined to remain for ever and anon plumb in the middle of the city for the sake of the few slow trains that keep chugging along above ground. Giddy-up to Bommerskontem.
The cost of supporting the tunnelled-under railway dam is, needless to say, astronomical. Perhaps European support could be sought, in support of a pointless support, for instance, or on account of the indisputable cultural significance of unwieldy obstacles in the city?
The promise to retain the station and railway dam intact was primarily a means of pulling the wool over the eyes of the nostalgically inclined man in the street and taking the wind out of the sails of any protest from the heritage sector: who in their right mind could take exception to something that is neatly stashed away under the ground, that leaves no trace, that apparently causes no disruption to our familiar world, something that is, so to speak, not there, but nonetheless permits a great leap forward to be taken? There is nothing technology cannot do nowadays, sir! Look at this, Clean Urbanism, the latest Belgian process for resolving the irreconcilable and leaving the city cleaner than clean! Make your city shine with Clean Urbanism. In contrast to many French TGV stations, that are grandly conceived as pseudo-cathedrals of the 21st century (and their environs as Eurodistrict, Eurothis or Eurothat), what we have here is a sham display of false modesty. HST? Not a sign of it, and yet it is there, the indispensable bill of exchange drawn on the future.
The pragmatic Belgians are allergic to promotional architectural images or any other kind of hyperbole. Present them with the absence of an image then. Large car parks needed? Same story: stick them underground. Parking problem solved.

The station as shopping mall

At the back of the station a new (partially sunken) square – the Kievietplein – with a second station entrance is to be built. The idea is to upgrade the back side of the station. The resulting ‘added value’ – as the jargon has it – will act as a catalyst for new developments in this peripheral zone. Haven’t we sorted that out nicely, with a square that plunges twelve metres below street level! For the rest there is the back of the Switel, with its metallic service quarters, the blank wall of the Zoo, and … well, you get the idea: nothing remotely like a decent urban elevation.
The underground station must, of course, have natural light. Belgian Railways (NMBS) engineers promote Kievitplein (this lugubrious pit) sometimes as a green valley, sometimes as hanging gardens. In addition to this creepy light well there will also be the entrance to a large underground car park. The peripheral zone behind the Kievitplein is to get a kiss and ride as a bonus. In other words, this former periphery will be swamped by the cranked-up station traffic and lose whatever residential qualities it still possesses. Empty properties and speculation will do the rest. Oh yes, the market will accomplish this in next to no time, just wait and see. Without any planning, urban development studies or other encumbrances. Astridplein, by the way, is also to be rewarded with a similar car park and an underground kiss and ride. Just let me drop grandma off under the ground!
The nineteenth-century railway cathedral is also going to be turned upside down. The continuation of the platforms for the HST and the local trains will be constructed at a depth of 20 and 12 metres respectively. An elongated atrium will draw light down into the depths and relate the various levels (including the remaining aboveground platforms) to one another spatially. Conceptually speaking there is no distinction between under and aboveground. The fact that you are under the ground is supposed to be camouflaged – which no longer works at this level of course. The ground floor will be all but cleared and transformed into a pedestrian short-cut (between Koningin Astridplein and the future Kievitplein), an ‘intermodal platform’ (serving different modes of public transport such as taxi, metro, tram, bus, train and HST8)) and, last but not least, a shopping centre (supplementing the station stress with a more enjoyable shopping bustle). One wonders whether the artificial commercialization of the new station concourse is such a bright idea. Whatever the case, the concept of an exclusive sort of shopping mall to which the current plans tend, does not fit in with the notion of a public short-cut connecting the centre and the inner periphery.
If the point of the overall plan is somewhat dubious, the architectural rendering of the transformation and extension of the station is downright disgraceful and a travesty of one of Europe’s most extraordinary station buildings. It is a grotesque parody of nineteenth-century railway architecture in Antwerp. But perhaps the tirades directed against this architecture are not really relevant. The NMBS recently engaged Calatrava to design the HST station in Liège (where a new rail cathedral seemingly is needed). So it is not impossible that, with a bit of pressure, competent architectural practices will yet be approached for Antwerp, too. And it may then prove possible to fiddle about with the infelicitous way the HST infrastructure has been fitted into the urban setting. The basic principles of the intervention are unfortunately beyond modification. It seems that the permit for the tunnel has already been issued.
The insertion of the HST terminal into the existing city centre is intended to strengthen its role as centre. Nonetheless, it is a risky gamble. It is unlikely that the HST terminal will be able to stem the process of impoverishment that has been going on for quite some time now in the centre of Antwerp. The diversity that historically speaking was a major component of urban centrality is increasingly giving way to a one-sided concentration that undermines authentic centrality. The Meir, for example, has become a monotonous succession of the same retail chains, a limited and large-scale open-air mall for mass consumption. The speculative tidal wave generated by the HST will only serve to accelerate this process of impoverishment and scaling-up. And while we’re on the subject, aren’t the city authorities’ attempts to rid the drab quarter on the other side of the Astridplein of the excesses of prostitution – in the context of a European urban revitalization project, mind you – an incentive to the same kind of impoverishment? Is this a trial run of the urban development motor? Everything tidy, everything safe, everything pretty, everything the same. Nothing that steps out of line, that is different.
The HST terminal will undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of the area around the station. The odds are that it will leach away still more of the centre’s vitality. Central Antwerp will probably once again become an assemblage of large-scale monotonies: offices, retail chains, hotel chains. The resulting traffic nuisance will place such a heavy burden on the vicinity that the public space will lose its mediatory function. The last fragment of urbanity will disappear, thereby allowing speculation a free hand: more and more marginal activities will be ousted and replaced by more and more of the same. Is there a tour operator still in need of a hotel?

8. Oddly enough, the platform does not link up with the Astridplein Kiss and Ride. This is located underground, as are the bicycle racks.

De besluitvorming over het HSL-traject in Nederland. Een reconstructie / Dutch decision-making and the high-speed line. A reconstruction