words Douglas Murphy“So what brings you to Liège?” Ron Arad asks sarcastically. Liège has never been a hot destination for architecture journals, but now it has joined the long list of cities that have pinned their hopes on the magical powers of the starchitects. Once the powerhouse of Belgium’s steel industry, over the years Liège has suffered the familiar European process of post-industrial malaise. But now, with the completion of two “iconic” buildings by Santiago Calatrava and Ron Arad, as well as the reopening of the Musée Curtius, the civic authorities are hoping to revive their fortunes. In a textbook attempt to channel the “Bilbao Effect”, their intention is to promote Liège as a destination for tourism, culture and shopping, and surprisingly old-fashioned “roofitecture” is their chosen catalyst.
Liège-Guillemins TGV station could not have been designed by anybody but Calatrava. A massive sweeping roof with secondary surfaces raking out over the surroundings, it features the biomimicry and incessant repetition of structural elements that are his trademark. It’s a deeply impressive building, and clearly intends to inspire a similar awe in the visitor that the original massive train stations did 150 years ago. The difference is that these were gigantic utilitarian train sheds hidden behind structures that were palatable to bourgeois tastes, and this edifice has no facade at all. That’s not to say that this is a simple roof – we’ve all seen utilitarian structures, and this certainly isn’t one. Rather than a design solution, it would be better to think of the building as a ridiculously expensive sculpture of a railway station. With its monumental opulence, uncannily blank detailing, blinding whiteness and dizzying repetition of structure, it’s a seriously overpowering object, and in its own way is as flamboyant and bombastic as anything Frank Gehry might design.
Ron Arad’s Médiacité, which houses Belgian state television and a shopping mall a kilometre down the road, is more humble. A roof ties all of the disparate elements of the building together with two small public squares at either end. A shapely surface, it twists around and above the circulation space with a steel structure spanned by an ETFE membrane. This central space has an elegant, liquid quality to it, the roof graciously swirling along with a hint of art nouveau’s whiplash curves. Throughout my visit, Arad describes the building variously as a “river”, “snake”, “souk” – even a “commercial favela”, but just as Calatrava has built a 21st-century railway shed, Arad’s structure is a 21st-century descendant of the roofs that bridged old Europe’s shopping arcades. With the recession casting a shadow onto not just the opening celebrations, but perhaps the whole notion of “iconic regeneration”, when Arad, not to be drawn into discussions of context, grandly pronounces, “The sky you see through the membrane is the sky of Liège”, one can’t help but notice that – to paraphrase Walter Benjamin – the light that falls through the ETFE is dirty and sad.
An edited version of this article appears in icon 079 (January 2010).
top image Santiago Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins TGV station.
top picture Thomas Mayer www.thomasmayerarchive.com
image Inside Liège-Guillemins TGV station.
picture Thomas Mayer www.thomasmayerarchive.com
image Ron Arad’s Médiacité.
image Inside the Médiacité.
image Inside the Médiacité.
image IOne of Arad’s concept drawings for the Médiacité.