Architect Marc Mimram reimagines the train station as a link between landscape and urbanism
Lifted off the ground, Marc Mimram's new train station dramatically arches over the train tracks. The building, located on the outskirts of Montpellier, aims to open up new perspectives though the city and aligns two vistas – one towards the city centre to the north and the other towards the sea about 5km to the south. ‘Ultimately, the goal is to connect Montpellier to the sea – I thought it would be good to incorporate this vision for the future into the design,’ Mimram says. ‘You see the city, you see the sea, and you understand the building as a bridge between the two.’
Currently under construction and set to open to the public in July 2018, the train station is designed to trigger the outwards urbanisation of Montpellier, with the aspiration that it will someday become the link between the airport, the city centre and the seaside. On a smaller scale, the building echoes its immediate surroundings as well as its purpose. The undulating roof mirrors the nearby rows of trees, integrating the building’s geometry into the natural landscape. Simultaneously, the roof evokes movement – its curvature follows the direction of the train tracks.
Establishing a dialogue between site and building was a primary concern. Pointing out that there are various dimensions to the site, Mimram differentiates the relationship with the landscape from the relationship with the climate, which he says is expressed through light and wind. The architect devised an ingenious ventilation system that relies on stack effect, maintaining the interior breezy and offering necessary respite to Montpellier's hot and humid climate.
The building's most striking feature is certainly the way in which the new canopy modulates the relentless Mediterranean sun through the roof’s double curvature and numerous perforations. This creates overlapping light patterns that reflect the sun’s trajectory throughout the course of the day, resulting in a soft and welcoming atmosphere. ‘As an architect, the feel of the space is always the most unpredictable aspect of a project,’ Mimram says. ‘But I think here we’ve achieved what we were striving for.’
The architect was inspired by Mediterranean architecture. ‘Nineteenth century train stations were suited for steam locomotives and northern climates, as you can see from their high ceilings and extensive use of glass,’ he says. ‘But obviously it’s very hot here, so that design typology would not be adapted to Montpellier.’ This prompted Mimram and his team to look at closer examples, mimicking classic Mediterranean sun-filtering techniques to reduce the otherwise overwhelming heat.
While visiting the station with the architect, and despite the 30-degree weather, it suddenly started pouring. The space changed – but it could still be described as luminous and soothing as the rain blurred the specks of light and projected a washed-out effect onto the ground and walls. Mimram appeared happily startled as he discovered how the weather transformed his building. ‘I like this sound,’ he says with a smile, referring to the hailstones bouncing off the roof. Precipitation also proved the structure’s acoustic performance, limiting the noise to a pitter-patter.
Efficiency defines Montpellier’s newest train station. Despite the traditional influences, Mimram also developed innovative ways to maximise his building’s functionality. For example, the use of ultra-high performance concrete eliminates the need for columns inside the main hall, which allows programmatic flexibility and facilitates pedestrian circulation. But imagining this construction as a bridge means entirely rethinking the typical train station typology – ‘placing people above the infrastructure of the railways promotes the continuity of their movements and of the urban environment’. When the project was commissioned, the city of Montpellier asked for a train station that would merge local and global, representing a key step on the future railway between London and Barcelona and simplifying mobility in Europe. ‘I always say, a successful bridge is a bridge you cannot move by five or ten meters – it’s a bridge that’s right in its place, and its place depends on its situation,’ the architect says. The meticulous alignment of the building both in Montpellier’s urban fabric and in the international high-speed train network seems to agree with his intentions.
Emma Le Leslé
Photos by Erieta Attali