“Absurd.” An “urban mistake.” And a “grave offense to transit users.”
French architects certainly haven’t minced their words in lining up to attack a planned redevelopment of Paris’ Gare du Nord station. Last week, 19 architects, including Pritzger-winner Jean Nouvel, published an open letter in Le Monde castigating France’s national state-owned railway company, SNCF, for its plans to expand the largest rail station in Paris, increasing its surface area by more than two-thirds with a new development featuring a shopping mall and offices. The project, dubbed StatioNord, is part of a slate of transportation improvements that will help Gare du Nord in its future role as a hub connecting venues for the 2024 Olympic Games. But the plan, the architects insist, would be inherently harmful to Paris’s patrimony and function as a steel-and-glass insult to rail users. Those are pretty strong words, but when you look closely at the project, they might be fair.
Visually, the new addition’s design is unexciting but hardly catastrophic. A collaboration between SNCF’s “Stations and Connections” department and Auchan—a big-box retail group that could loosely be described as France’s Walmart—the huge new wing will largely snake around the rear side of the historic station building’s glorious mid-19th-century train sheds, rising above platform space and replacing a small 1980s shopping mall and Metro access route that is unlikely to be missed. StatioNord’s glass facade will not rise higher than the existing station roof, while around its long sprawling back portion, an existing row of buildings means that passers-by will only get peek-a-boo glimpses of it at best. It will boast a green roof, lots of bicycle parking, and a host of new retailers. While few Parisian hearts will race at the thought of getting another mid-range brand emporium—one that critics worry will further tax an already congested area—overall, drawing a mustache on the “Mona Lisa” this is not.
Here’s the real problem with the new station plan. Currently, rail passengers can enter the station and go directly onto a train (with the exception of those to London, where travelers must pass through passport control). If the development goes ahead, however, passengers will be re-routed through separate departure and arrival halls, accessing the platforms through the mall then descending back down to their trains via elevator and escalator. The letter’s signatories (and many other observers) hate this. The plan is a “gift to commerce” at travelers’ expense, they say, one that “pays for itself with pointlessly lengthened and complicated journeys.” By forcing passengers to wander a maze of retailers, the station is prioritizing footfall for stores over speed and ease for travelers.
There’s a clear precedent elsewhere in the world of mass transit here: The station sounds like it’s going to be a lot more more like an airport.
Nothing should be more like an airport. Even airports should be less like airports. Contemporary flight terminals are purgatorial by design—and with an increasing trend for routing passengers through shopping areas, they’re getting worse. London’s airports, for example, have each been turned in a nightmarish IKEA of transit, forcing passengers to follow a labyrinthine trail past every single product the airport offers for sale before they can reach the gate. Claustrophobic and hectoring in effect, this approach means you’re effectively banned from reaching a bathroom until you’ve seen at least two giant Toblerone Jengas and a bare minimum of three aftershave endorsements featuring the many faces of Chris Hemsworth. All told, it makes you feel like krill being pushed through a blue whale’s intestine.
Railway stations have hitherto provided a refreshing break from this nonsense. The appeal of trains versus planes is not solely that stations are more centrally located than airports—it’s also because the traveler’s journey from sidewalk-to-seat can be comparatively quick and seamless. While there are places inside stations to grab food and other essentials on the way, a railway station does not typically seek to trap you. Indeed, a truly busy train hub wants you to get out of there as soon as possible, to make room for the next person.
That’s how it should be. A station needs to be a flexible space capable of moving mass surges of commuters—by design, they’re so full of exits and entrances that they’re as leaky as sieves, to ensure that the crowds on their concourses are constantly expelled and renewed through a space as free of bottlenecks as possible. As a result of this ease, even ugly railway stations—see New York City’s much-hated Penn Station—are sometimes celebrated for the grim efficiency with which they go about inhaling and disgorging huge numbers of travelers every day. Airports, by contrast, must separate and screen flows of people from each other, and they base their passenger experience on the understanding that each user will be held both contained and captive for at least 90 minutes.
Gare du Nord, which is expected to handle about 900,000 passengers per day by 2030 (it’s now moving 700,000), serves as the endpoint not just for trains from northern France, but for services from London, Belgium, Holland, and Northwest Germany. Alighting there can sometimes feel like a bit of a shock: You are abruptly funneled via escalator from the grand platform level down into its shabby, confusing Metro station. But it remains a site of some magic, where travel still feels like an opportunity rather than a chore. And it’s still infinitely preferable to any airport. If this place gets turned into a sort of mall-conveyor belt feeding resentful passengers into trains via its bowels, architects might not be the only ones who are upset.