Gare de Rouen (art nouveau and modernist railway stations)

I was just sorting some postcards this morning, and found this one of Rouen station in France. So, this is a post about the art nouveau railway station in France.

Anyone who has built a train set knows that, whatever its extent, the lay-out is built up of standard parts. You can get whole catalogues of this stuff and they’re quite interesting in themselves.

Big railway systems are made in the same way! The smaller stations are generic and have the standard buildings and the usual arrangements of platforms and track etc. Things get more interesting when the the train arrives at the larger provincial cities.

In France the railway was laid out at a slightly later time than in the UK. Accordingly, the style of architecture is from both a different tradition and from a different period of design history…

The bigger railway stations are significant civic buildings. Probably only second in importance to the town hall in the projection of civic identity. Whereas the town hall generally addresses itself to the inhabitants of the city; the railway station is aimed at impressing visitors.

The station at Rouen was designed by Adolphe Devaux and built between 1913 and 1928. The hiatus of the Great War 1914-1918 obviously interrupted and delayed proceedings. The building is interesting because, nothwithstanding its eccentric style, it was constructed of steel frame and reinforced concrete.

The use of reinforced concrete allowed the concourse area at Rouen to be placed above the platform and tracks. The foot-print of the station was, in consequence, greatly reduced. Implicit in the reduced foot-print of the building is the speed, convenience and efficiency of the system – for both railway and passengers. You can sense that time is money.

Rouen was a tentative kind of prototype of the vertically integrated stack stations of modernist imagination. The vertical integration of transport infrastructure was first proposed by the Italian Futurist architect, Antonio Sant’Elia in 1907.

You can read about these developments in Steven Parissien’s history of railway architecture Station to Station (1997).

What is art nouveau? Well, it’s an architectural and design style. It comes in the second half of the 19C. The style uses modern materials and engineering to push the limits of gothic style elongation. At the same time the style incorporates the sinuous forms of the organic. These are further exaggerated through the asymmetric arrangements of mass and decoration. The style was widely understood, in its extreme forms, as transgressive of the classical “norms” of architectural good taste…

Of course, the station at Rouen is a good deal later than the high-point of art nouveau. Accordingly, it’s representative of a style that’s been assimilated into the civic mainstream.

In London, the Horniman museum and the Whitechapel Gallery are representative of this style of building.

If you want to see what art nouveau station architecture looks like, go to Limoges or to Paris. In Paris, the metro station openings by Hector Guimard are the best example of this.

Guimard conceptualised an integrated system of glass, metal and typographic elements that could be assembled to provide consistent, but individual, stations.

You can see the same logic, but bigger, in the metal and glass canopy of the reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale , Paris.

The most interesting contemporary example of vertical integration is in Berlin’s new main line railway station. The Berlin station combines the vertical arrangement of moderist proposals with the scale Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, of 1851, and with the parabolic complexity of the Bibliotheque Nationale. A great contemporary synthesis.

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