Australia to spend $40 billion on underground metros.
With a sprawl of ugly McMansion box houses looming behind him and sparse paddocks cowering in front, Sydney architect Ross de la Motte is showing off a building which he audaciously compares to Antoni Gaudi’s soaring masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.
The principal of global architecture firm Hassell points out the sinuous bifurcated steel canopy that hangs like two drooping gum leaves, and the ceilings underneath whose panels of local white mahogany and spotted gum make a textural reference to the local bushland. Then he points to tinted glass panels set in the structure through which sunlight will cast gentle flickering washes of pastel green onto the grey paving stones below.
One inspiration for the design came from de la Motte’s visit eight years ago to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, still under construction after 100 years, just as glaziers were putting the finishing touches to the stained glass windows that light the stone column forest of its interior nave. “The late afternoon sun was shining through the facade into the cathedral, washing the floor, walls and the people in colour,” de la Motte says. “It was such a wonderful, beautiful place to be in. That’s a bit what we are looking for here. It’s that same idea of lifting your spirits.”
This comparison will seem comical to some: what de la Motte is describing is not a place of worship, but a new train station called Cudgegong Road, the last stop on a metro line under construction in Sydney’s outer north-west suburbs.
De la Motte is very serious about train stations, which he feels are reclaiming a central place in architecture and urban design – and indeed in Australia’s economy and national character – that’s been missing since rail’s glory days of the 19th century.
The passion runs in the family. De la Motte’s father was a moulder at the Eveleigh Rail Yards in inner Sydney and in his spare time a trainspotter and train buff. He likes to quote architecture writer Charles Sheppard who described train stations in the 19th century as “cathedrals of the new age” which glorify modern man rather than the spirit on high.
Road v rail
After half a century of public transport lovers’ purgatory, metros are back. For decades governments shunned the enormous expense of building new rail lines through central business districts and inner cities, preferring suburban toll roads whose cost could be shunted to the private sector through public-private partnerships. Road versus rail has became one of the most bitter political fights in Australia.
Pitched arguments in Victoria over which multibillion-dollar project to build first – a $10 billion East West road tunnel through Melbourne’s inner north, or a $9 billion rail line under the CBD – led to former prime minister Tony Abbott famously declaring in 2013 that the Commonwealth would fund only roads.
Construction work began on the East West freeway and the Victorian Labor government provoked outrage when it scrapped the project to free up funds for rail (and incurred a bill of $1.2 billion for compensation.) NSW proposed then scrapped a Sydney CBD metro line under the previous Labor government. The Liberal government in 2011 sprang the surprise of the WestConnex freeway project with little consultation or even a business case. Protests, sometimes angry, have questioned the logic of funnelling more cars into a crowded CBD.
But all roads are increasingly leading to rail. Governments have decided that toll roads and cars alone will not deal with the 8 million people who will move to the big capital cities in the next 20 years. They are belatedly following Europe, Asia and once-car-dominated US cities such as Washington and Los Angeles which have built huge metro networks. The last federal budget earmarked $10 billion for urban rail over the next decade, with Infrastructure Australia estimating that demand for public transport will rise by 48 per cent in Sydney by 2031 and almost double in Melbourne and Perth.
New stations in Sydney, Melbourne
De la Motte is now supervising construction of the first eight stations for a $20-billion Sydney metro project that will redefine the city’s geography. The next stage of the Sydney metro will put six new stations in the heart of the Sydney business district, opening up the new Barangaroo precinct and transforming iconic Central Station. Two huge new stations, to be called Martin Place and Pitt Street, will pump foot traffic to the side of the city near Hyde Park. The new stations are already creating a frenzy of real estate speculation as developers stake claims in what will be the city’s prime retail space.
Meanwhile three consortia are eyeing roles in the new Melbourne Metro Tunnel project that will construct five new stations from north to south through the CBD running from Melbourne University in the inner north to the office blocks of St Kilda Road in the south. Brisbane is planning five new CBD stations in its Cross River Rail project and the new Labor government in WA has scrapped a freeway project and wants a rail upgrade called Metronet.
The total bill for all these metros will be at least $40 billion, an investment as big as the National Broadband Network. More underground train stations will be under construction in the next five years than were built in the previous 50. Simultaneously a light rail line will banish the car from Sydney’s George Street and the Gold Coast is pushing for an extension to its G:link light rail.
The investment provides an opportunity to reshape how Australians move through their cities, and perhaps redefine how Australian cities feel to international visitors. The new stations will be among the most visited, and most visible, parts of our capitals. New or renovated lines in London, Barcelona, Paris and Copenhagen have become a showcase for art and design. New York has just opened the Second Avenue subway, its walls decorated with edgy urban murals by famous artists such as Chuck Close and Sarah Sze. Each year hip New York design magazine Complex publishes a list of the 25 most beautiful metro stations, celebrating the likes of Taiwan’s Formosa Boulevard with its “dome of light” and the Foster+Partners-designed Expo station in Singapore.
Train stations with the wow factor
Rodd Staples, program director of Sydney Metro, says his people have looked at Second Avenue, as well as the modernisation of historic St Pancras and King’s Cross stations in London. He is hoping for a similarly transformative design for the new Martin Place station, which will disgorge passengers via a three-storey-high glass foyer into the historic mall. “How we present the building in Martin Place will be really important,” he says. “When people walk up Martin place they will go ‘wow’.”
Peter Newman, distinguished professor of sustainability at Curtin University, says the metro lines will be crucial for Sydney’s and Melbourne’s future economic success: “Cities depend on their centres for globally competitive capital and jobs,” he says. “If they are not dense and walkable they don’t cut it. People in the knowledge economy need to meet quickly and easily within walking distance. Sydney and Melbourne are both going to the next level in bringing people to the city centre without a car.”
Australia has some runs on the board designing big stations in the middle of cities, notably Melbourne’s Southern Cross designed by global architecture group Grimshaw. Its uninhibited, undulating roof is a provocative response to Melbourne’s other main station, the Victorian-era Flinders Street. Southern Cross won the Lubetkin prize in 2007 from the British Royal Institute of Architects.
Grimshaw partner Neil Stonell, who worked on Southern Cross 15 years ago and recently finished the reference design for the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, says he hopes the new Melbourne stations can have the impact the new Jubilee line had when it transformed parts of London in the 1990s and set the standard for expressive metro design.
“The Jubilee line was a celebration of the best in 1990s British architecture and was recognised at the time as a high-quality investment in transport infrastructure. When visitors come to Melbourne they should return home telling friends about the metro as much as the city’s other great buildings such as Federation Square and the laneways,” says Stonell, whose Sydney studio is also in a Macquarie Bank-led consortium bidding to design Sydney’s new Martin Place station.
Madrid metro a good model
As we tour the Cudgegong Road site, de la Motte describes heading into town on Madrid’s new metro one summer evening after a day walking in the heat. He descended into the cool underground station on the city’s outskirts and as he travelled, the immaculate blue-and-white carriage started filling up with people in tuxedos and evening gowns. He suddenly realised what it was like to be in a country where travelling by metro was not seen as a second-best option, even for the prosperous middle class. “It was the people of Madrid going out for the evening,” he recalls. “They were going to step off the Metro and go to the restaurant or the opera.”
While breadth of network, smoothness of ride, free Wi-Fi and frequency of trains will largely determine how many Australians change their habits to travel like Madrileños, de la Motte believes that the design and finish of the stations themselves can also be a crucial part of why people embrace public transport. It is not an easy sell.
In two decades of designing train stations, most of which were never built, de la Motte has come to understand how hard it can be to convince the politicians and the slide-rule engineers who usually run transport departments to spend extra on good design. A single train station in the middle of the city can cost $200 million.
De la Motte first qualified as a landscape architect but came to train stations when Hassell won the contract to design Sydney’s Olympic Park stop for the 2000 Games. As he tells it, the bureaucrats initially wanted an “underground box with a lid on it and a little shed at one end for the exit”. He ended up selling them on a “heroic” vaulted structure which won the Sulman prize for architecture and is arguably the most interesting architecture left behind by the Olympics.
Stonell has also witnessed government enthusiasm for metros ebb and flow. The British-born architect came to Melbourne to build Southern Cross Station in 2002 at a time when the Bracks government wanted to show a commitment to public transport. Grimshaw used the train station to link the CBD with the nascent Docklands area. Stonell enthusiastically took part in the public competition organised by the Baillieu government to redesign Flinders Street Station, but that ultimately came to nought. “It was a very well-run competition but unfortunately at the time there was no money to build it,” Stonell laments.
Copenhagen defined modern metro style
Wherever possible, light is directed to the platform or at least the concourse above it. With that inspiration, the stations in Sydney’s Northwest metro have been lifted as close to ground level as possible, running in shallow trenches open to the sky or with skylights that will let in air and light. “We are building ‘shelters’ not ‘stations’,” says de la Motte. “We want you to feel the breeze, see the view connected with the landscape.”
One big debate in train station design is whether to make each station unique or to create a shared look for the whole line. De la Motte has used different colours for each station on the Northwest metro, shifting from green to orange as the line approaches the city; Stonell has crafted a concept design for the Metro Tunnel stations in Melbourne which encourages an understanding of local diversity.
“When designing multiple stations on a new line, there are two approaches,” says Stonell. “One is to have a strong, single architectural identity that is consistent along a line from station entry to platform. This was the solution adopted at Copenhagen and Bilbao for their metros. Another approach is to incorporate some of the personality of the precinct that the station sits in, and this felt more appropriate for the Melbourne Metro Tunnel.”
Old but new
The redesign of Sydney’s Central Station will pose the challenge of inserting modern function into an idiosyncratic Edwardian pile that is one of Australia’s best-known and busiest heritage buildings. Stonell compares it to Grimshaw’s redesign of Paddington station in Britain in the 1990s, which put a funky shopping precinct into Isambard Brunel’s
19th-century, steam-era iron vaults. De la Motte, when charged with a similar problem with the 2006 reconstruction of Parramatta station, opted to preserve the 19th-century building but encase its platforms in glass.
Sydney’s new stations are scheduled to open by 2023, Brisbane’s by 2024 and Melbourne’s by 2026. De la Motte says there are big differences between what is being planned in all the cities. But he says that governments now share a desire to create something “extraordinary”.