A chance article about a recent U-Bahn in Leipzig tempted me to investigate.
In truth I was invited to an urban regeneration event by an acquaintance and took the opportunity to look into this ‘uncube’ piece. For it speaks rather dismissively of a U-Bahn project, not from the point of view of its purpose, which is to make a rail connection across the city (think mini-Crossrail) but from an architectural desire that had not, it seems, been satisfied. This is always a matter of interest to me, for I believe the architectural expression and urban impact of our stations is important, being comparatively cheap to provide, with missed opportunities oftentimes the result of short-sighted value engineering decisions, and equally oftentimes being not difficult to retrofit when the error is recognised.
The engineering decision at Leipzig is to construct box stations; deep, seemingly unpropped excavations that have scarcely any accommodation within them to interrupt the space. Creating boxes in historic and much-loved city centres such as that of Leipzig inevitably means that space has to be found in the urban fabric that removes as little of that fabric as possible, and inevitably therefore the station is rarely at the heart of the urban action. However in Leipzig the centrality of these stations is really rather impressive. There are four underground stations, one within the arched trainshed of the mainline station, one in the central market square, one on the southern edge of the centre, and one further south, at the site of the original terminus station to which the tunnels from the north now connect.
Each station has a different ambience and, while the article considers the architectural styling to be either restrained or falsely emblematic of a particular historic incident, to me they are all simply resolved and really rather good. Clearly there is experimentation here, architectural and artistic in equal measure, some more successful than others only due to maintainability and rampant pigeons but uplifting spaces nevertheless.
The thrust of the article is in the loss of the opportunity to create more Architecture (‘pizzazz’), that the stations are underplayed and not an adequate representation of the €1bn invested. I’m in two minds. First, it is certainly true that the surface structures are less impressive than things below ground. But with station boxes you expect icebergs and the surface structures really don’t need to be grander if form is to approximate to function. However, even small entrances can have flair, and if you are going to dig a big hole in the ground the reinstatement of the site with much the same monotony as before seems a little parsimonious. At the southern two stations in particular, where the entrances don’t rather cleverly employ existing heritage environments, the white box and surface replication approach could have instead offered, and could still offer, a much-improved urban statement and an enhanced public realm. A competition was held for the space around one of these stations, but it focused on celebratory monumentalism (which is easy to argue against) rather than an enhanced environment (which isn’t) and progress seems to have fallen foul of political machinations.
While I was mulling all this over with Andreas Rohrbach, a sculptor who had also joined the event, he mentioned Martin Kippenberger, someone who’s work, I am slightly apologetic to say, I had not known. The reference was Martin’s ‘Metro Net’ project, and by chance one of his pieces lay in a park just on the edge of Leipzig.
The white box simplicity of course struck a chord, as did the project premise that the Metro system is a metaphor for the global interconnectivity of people and cultures. I liked the idea that such a big concept could be captured in such a simplicity of form, and promptly concluded that uncube’s ‘Architecture-for-architecture’s-sake’ was just too close to ‘celebratory monumentalism’, and neither were the correct premise for stations or the urban realm.