Written by GQR
In a world that was just beginning to step into the industrial revolution, the emergence of the steam engine in the 19th century was the game changer for transportation.
Around the same time, it seemed all the big shot names in architecture and design were receiving commissions to spruce up newly invented train stations – creating vast and inspiring spaces that hosted the constant comings and goings of people, commerce, travel, and more.
In this article, art meets architecture and goes on a double-date with transport and industry. It’s a match made in railway heaven.
We’ve also put together a playlist to accompany you on this trip. So pop in your earphones and please enjoy.
Arrival – Antwerpen-Centraal Station, Antwerp
Time – 15:55 UTC/GMT+1
We’re riding through green hills and then the train comes to a stop and the doors open. We look around and can’t decide if we’ve stopped at a cathedral, castle, or railway station. We step out on to the platform.
It’s lavish, it’s sophisticated. There are twenty different types of marble and stone decorating the waiting room. Weary-eyed tourists, don’t get confused with the turrets framing the dome, you have indeed stepped into the terminus.
Antwerpen-Centraal Station is filled with families, with couples, with everybody, all swooping through the station. They go from one stop to another, bathing in light pouring from skylights.
We reach the upper train platform, where the iron-and-glass roof encloses us within the station. For a moment, the crowd trickles out, and a dandy walrus stumbles across the marble floors.
Except, it isn’t a walrus. It’s Louis Delacenserie – architect and designer of this elaborate station. Don’t let his handlebar moustache put you off. He looks around the stone-clad building he designed. Does he know there are new tunnels underneath his beloved station? A necessary addition to accommodate the traffic and high-speed rail.
There’s a teenager munching on frites. Long, golden, crispy chips she’s bought from one of the stores inside the terminal. We leap towards the store when the train doors start closing and retreat just in time for them to shut.
Cursing our missed chance at eating frites, we roll onto our next destination.
Arrival – Constitucion Railway Station, Buenos Aires
Time – 19:01 GMT-3
There were once big crates of prawns on ice being sold here – early morning markets just outside the station’s entrance, bustling crowds searching out fresh produce.
Fresh seafood long gone, the bustling crowds remain, in even greater numbers now, shoving and pushing through the station, grabbing a quick plastic-wrapped milanesa sandwich or a pack of smokes, before jumping onto the next train.
We hang about, grab a choripan from one of the mobile stands, maybe a few sandwiches de miga. Don’t worry, there’ll be a parade of vendors on the trains, moving from carriage to carriage, selling you food, drinks, CDs, pirate copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Over there is a foundation stone, laid by the Prince of Wales when he visited here almost 80 years ago. Over a hundred years before that, this site was once home to a hospital, which then turned into a marketplace, which then turned into the train station we currently stand in.
Jump forward through the later construction of the station as we see it now, a mix of neo-classical and Beaux Arts, with arched ceilings and its main hall – one of the largest in the world. The classical elements remain, now intermingled with the gigantic bright digital screen, displaying train times.
The development of the railroad was vital in modern architecture as an enabler of accelerating times, of traveling longer distances. It’s a symbol of progress and industrial development.
It’s getting dark now. Outside the station, there are bars and kiosks still buzzing with people. A few taxi drivers waiting around, a quick coffee and a smoke. We have time to step up to a kiosk. Pick out some grilled sandwiches.
The vibe changes outside Constitucion Railway Station, and suddenly our hands are gripping our bags and phones and wallets and hats. We don’t let go. Not until we’re running, heading back to the building. Plop down panting at the terminal, our stomachs churning, we shouldn’t have eaten so quickly and sprinted for safety.
But hey, what are you going to do? In the end, it’s the experience that matters.
Arrival – Komsomolskaya Station, Moscow
Time – 7:03 GMT+3
This isn’t the palace of Catherine the Great, nor is it an elaborately designed government building. Those people around us aren’t the aristocracy, they’re commuters just like us.
Chandeliers hang through the station looking like something poached out of a ballroom. But this is the Moscow metro. From the granite floor, sixty-eight limestone-and-marble pillars rise. The ceilings are a robust royal yellow. There are murals dedicated to the triumph of Russia’s historic military.
It’s baroque meets metro – Joseph Stalin’s “palace for the people.” It’s remained as it is now since its completion in 1952.
We hear Mayakovskaya (named after the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky) received the same decorative treatment, with its mosaics decorating the ceilings. As did Ploschad Revolutsii with bronze statues of soldiers – another nod to the military. And Prospekt Mira, Kiyevskaya, Arbatskaya, and others.
We can’t spot a single smear of graffiti, not an inkling of vandalism. It’s the place to live out a fantasy – for a minute, a short minute, so brief, before that man with the briefcase bumps into us.
Come on, hurry up. We’re going to miss our next train.
The doors close, and as we look down, we see that the briefcase man was halfway eating a cheburek, some of it neatly stained into our jacket.
Arrival – Central Railway Station, Maputo
Time – 13:00 GMT+2
The Central Railway Station in Maputo travels underground and showcases seven steam engines.
At the end of the platform, a group of five gather before the Kulungwana Art Gallery, located inside the train station. A young man stands before them, pointing to the wrought-iron latticework, the large dome, and marble columns that could fool you into thinking you’re in Athens, with all the Beaux-Arts architecture surrounding them. There are tourists taking photographs outside the white and mint green building, in front of the entrance, where an elaborate clock hangs.
We bite into a pastel de nata egg tart, sip on an espresso, and look around like this is the place we’d rather be more than anywhere else in the world. And we leave the station, only for a moment, the train leaves in ten.
Outside, a peach-orange sky, palm trees tall as the skyscrapers towering over the city, and ahead, waves crashing on the beach. We lick our fingers of the pastry, rub the rest on our shirt, tilt the coffee back and drink down the rest. This is the definition of satisfying, and we’ll fight anyone who dares to argue.
There are reports that Gustave Eiffel is the mastermind architect behind Maputo Railway Station, but this is debated. Besides, we think his ghost is more likely hanging around the Casa de Ferro, which he most definitely did construct. Before departure, we pop into the Ka Mfumo Jazz Café for some live music. No time to click our fingers though, not even for another espresso – the whistle blows. We gotta go.
Arrival – Toledo Art Station, Naples
Time – 1:13 GMT+2
Music is blaring in our ears via a pair of headphones. It’s all EDM, the latest tracks from Rome. Our hips are shaking, our heads bopping, backpack jiggling – from the outside it looks like we’re dancing in a low-lit club. If we hadn’t downed all that Jager it’d probably be easier to believe we weren’t in a club.
We’re in the Toledo Art Station in Naples. This metro is the “catacombs of beauty”, described as such by the art critic Achille Bonito Oliva, who brought together the cache of artists that redesigned this station. This isn’t simply a lavishly decorated piece of architecture. This experiment in design and architecture is Oliva’s intention to enable communication between the artist and space.
We’re mesmerised by the light-panel seascape that the elevators travel through. Then there’s the backlit coloured panels and glossy surfaces – all red, white, blue – screaming The Age of Digital. Then there’s Dante Alighieri hanging out by the steps.
We make our way through this hyper-glossed labyrinth and straight to the market on Via della Pignasecca. Natural lights! Real people! A dog wagging its tail, tongue lapping from its mouth.
A man asks us to buy fresh fish and we want to hug him, to kiss him, to tell him to stay human. He smacks us with the fish, tells us to stop wasting his time. We apologise, profusely, still dazed from the underground.
We take a walk, smell some flowers from one of the stalls, bite into an apple, then it’s back down the trippy elevator, to our train, to our next stop. Let’s go! Let’s go!
Arrival – Atocha Station, Madrid
Time – 11:05 GMT+2
We think we’ve stepped inside a jungle. We think. Everything is lush green, tropical, beautiful. Parakeets sing high above. An army of turtles hang ten by a pond. There are Malabar chestnut trees. Look up and see an iron-and-glass roof appear.
We haven’t stumbled upon a rainforest. Rather a tropical garden lining the concourse inside the terminus. It’s a tropical bliss surrounded by a shopping centre. But we’ll try not to get caught up in the jungle before our train takes off.
The garden has taken over the old Atocha train station, abandoned thanks to expansion. Besides the turtles and the chestnut trees, we spot coconut trees, breadfruit, Brazilian rubber trees, banana trees, among others. You’ll walk out feeling like an arborist.
We take a seat on one of the benches lining the tropical garden. Further down, there are two men involved in an intense conversation, newspaper abandoned, pointing around the trees, saying something like:
“This wasn’t what we planned.”
These men are Alberto de Palacio Elissangne, the mastermind behind Atocha, and his collaborator Gustave Eiffel, who’s flexed his muscles on train stations before.
The tropical garden wasn’t what they’d planned, but expansion is unavoidable, and shopping centres are weeds growing everywhere. So let’s make some room for the plants and enjoy the view.
There’s a woman throwing food into the pond as the turtles gather on the rock. There’s a kid beside him, maybe her child, pointing and smiling, eyes wide, excited.
We pick up a coffee (fourth for the day?) from one of the nearby cafes, and flip open a book, listen to the birds, listen to the steady flow of commuters heading to catch their trains, before our time is up and we must abandon this haven within an iron and glass vault.
What time is it? We take out our train timetable, run our finger down the list of stations and schedules. Where to next?