Antwerp’s Centraal Station

Antwerp’s Centraal Railway Station, completed in 1905. (Culture Trip)

A friend sent an email literally begging me to read the novel Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, of whom I’d never heard, and it came in the mail just in the nick of time, preventing me from writing about the Super Bowl’s half-time show, which I am now already a day late in describing (the stage featured five white “rooms”), and of which I will say only that it must have been paid for by the GOP.

Austerlitz was published in 2001 and is said to have been written in one long paragraph of many complex sentences. But hey, I love Henry James. It seems that there is much about architecture in the novel, at least in the early going, especially Antwerp’s Centraal Station, part of whose description I quote below.

One of the projects thus initiated by the highest authority in the land [King Leopold] was the central station of the Flemish metropolis, where we [the narrator and his friend], said Austerlitz; designed by Louis Delacenserie, it was inaugurated in the summer of 1905, after ten years of planning and building, in the presence of the King himself. The model Leopold had recommended to his architects was the new railway station of Lucerne, where he had been particularly struck by the concept of the dome, so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings, a concept realized by Delacenserie in his own design, which was inspired by the Parthenon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today [1967], said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round gray and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. However laughable in itself, Delacenserie’s eclecticism, united past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairway in the foyer and the steel and glass roof spanning the platforms, was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch, said Austerlitz, and it was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century – mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation.

This passage is embedded in a paragraph that opens the book and does not end until its 31st page. So, yes, Austerlitz has more than one paragraph, but not all that many more. Yet even with its long sentences it is quite easy to read.

Who knows what Austerlitz (or Sebald) meant by “the new epoch”? The new century, perhaps, or the new goofball quality in the arts and, just being noticed by the public, in architecture. But that came a decade or so later. Eclecticism was still in vogue for years beyond 1905, a pastiche of old styles, and one wishes that it had remained in vogue. Uniting the past and the future is fine, if the future is not considered a rejection of the past – as in modern architecture it has been, purposely, throughout its brief history.

It would be impossible to write anything about modern architecture that a reader might find both lengthy and readable. Most writing about modern architecture is as nauseating to read – twisting language into pretzels to avoid description – as it is to experience. Modernist writing is language designed to disguise thought. An interest in modern architecture would never sustain a book like Austerlitz.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Books and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Antwerp’s Centraal Station

  1. LazyReader says:

    Not all modern architecuture “in the subtext of what we call” modern, deserves it’s rap. IN fact there are a few gems
    – Space Needle
    – Casa Mila
    – Sydney Opera House
    – Falling Water
    – LAX building
    – Hallgrímskirkja
    – Mid Century homes of Palm Springs

    Like

  2. thenerdysaxophonist says:

    I’ve heard a lot from about the architecture of train stations and have been very satisfied, but what about the trains that run through or terminate at said train stations? I find that a Pennsylvania Railroad MP54 or a SNCF Class Z 23000 looks much better than, say, a Thameslink Class 700, and the former two would blend in much better with the architecture of Antwerp Centraal Statio, New York Penn Station, London Paddington Station, and York Station than the latter.
    For context:
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:PRR_MP54s_of_the_Pennsylvania_Railroad
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:SNCF_Class_Z_23000
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:British_Rail_Class_700s_in_Thameslink_Southern_Great_Northern_livery

    Like

  3. Colum Mulhern says:

    I must say, Antwerp train station was the most surprising building I ever entered. Entering the hallway took me back even more than when stepping into the Pantheon. I couldn’t believe the size of it which was more impressive than the details. A real must for everyone, even if you get onto the next train out without leaving the station.

    Like

  4. John the First says:

    “when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane”

    I spent half a summer night in the main hall once on a bench, when I missed the last train, I had to wait over four hours for the early morning train. In such a place, in that impressive hall and with warm weather it was pleasant and comfortable.

    Talking about profane.
    They build several underground levels in the station for the contemporary mob masses who travel from home to work and vice versa. These new ‘modernist’ looking underground railways seem perfectly and symbolically adapted to the masses, for dwarfish cavemen who have no time to look around and enjoy, always being in a hurry and concentrated on each other and their smartphones.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.