Architecture: Lille's on the fast track: A French provincial centre's high-speed rail link offers a lesson to London, says Martin Spring

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Even before regular service begins on the Channel tunnel railway linking London, Paris and Brussels, Lille has opened its new high-speed railway station and transport interchange. The Eurostar trains, however, are only part players on an astonishing and profitable new urban stage.

Above and alongside the Lille interchange, a sparkling complex has shot up featuring a shopping centre, offices, exhibition and conference halls, hotels, flats, a college and more. It all adds up up to an instant city-withina-city, dubbed Euralille.

Euralille's station is enclosed by a weightless structure of glass walls and delicate steel hoops that support the roof. An elegant bridge carries cars, buses and trams up and over the station concourse, while huge concrete staircases and elevators descend at crazy angles to a new underground metro station. Two high office blocks, one in the bizarre shape of a ski boot, straddle the new station, and a hotel is planned to do likewise.

Beyond a new triangular piazza stands a three-storey shopping centre in gleaming glass, polished steel and flashing neon. It is bounded by a block of flats with a mesmerising multicoloured facade and by three shorter tower blocks, also clad in steel, glass and neon. To one side, a large public park is being landscaped, while on the other side of an elevated roadway stands a giant oval convention centre combining a large exhibition hall, three conference auditoriums and a pop-concert hall.

Euralille's station interchange and surrounding complex, which cost pounds 750m to develop, are conceived with the panache of early Victorian railway termini. With its futuristic design and rapid development period, Euralille befits the advanced high-speed rail travel that generated it.

The contrast with the procrastination by the British government over a high-speed rail link to the Channel tunnel and the protests by Kent 'nimbies' along its route could not be more marked.

Euralille was the vision of Pierre Mauroy, the city's mayor. He saw that Lille could become 'the communications centre of north-west Europe', and persuaded French railways (SNCF) to choose the city for the main junction on its new TGV line between Paris and the Channel tunnel. The city council picked up the pounds 114m tab of rerouting the proposed line.

Conveniently, Lille had available a greenfield site almost as large as Hyde Park next to its existing station. For centuries the area had been protected by statute as a military zone (because Lille is a frontier city), but it had been made redundant by the European Union.

Mauroy realised that a 'strong architectural signal' would be vital to catch the eyes of high-speed travellers and symbolise the city's revival.

The Dutch avant-garde architect Rem Koolhaas was chosen to carry out the master plan. An influential architectural panel was also set up to control standards. And a clutch of star Modernist architects with little or no experience of large commercial projects, including Jean Nouvel, Claude Vasconi, Christian de Portzamparc and Koolhaas himself, were nominated to design the individual buildings. Every star architect was teamed up with a local architect for the project.

Koolhaas has had a long love affair with imaginary cities of the future. He made his name in the Seventies with utopian fantasy projects, including a proposal to relocate New York's Central Park as a giant roof garden supported on a cluster of skyscrapers. At Euralille, Koolhaas set out to harness and glorify the dynamism generated by high-speed, long-distance rail travel.

'What is unique about this development,' he says, 'is not that you are in Lille, but that you are less than two hours from Paris, London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne. This means that it is the centre, not of a conurbation of 1.5 million inhabitants, but of a community of 70 million people.'

Koolhaas scorns the current craving by commercial developers and town planners to dress up large new developments in styles that mimic their historic and diminutive neighbours. Instead, Euralille's brazen modern megastructures stand daringly close to the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century streets and buildings that make up the city centre.

However, if Koolhaas delights in creating a rupture in style and form with the historic city centre, he has not turned his back on it. Railway engineers constructed the new TGV station below ground, but he 'liberated it' by sloping the ground towards the site and making it visible from the city. He has also encouraged maximum use of clear glass to make buildings transparent and their contents visible.

Paradoxically, the most radical aspect of Koolhaas's master plan has a distinctly traditional goal - though one that is traditional in function rather than style. He is keen to recreate that rich and dense mix of commercial and social activities that makes a successful metropolis buzz.

Accordingly, as many activities as possible have been brought together in the complex. What is more, Koolhaas has encouraged these manifold activities to be physically intermixed and overlaid in three dimensions. Thus the two office blocks plus the future hotel rise directly over the new station - this added 8 per cent to the building costs. And along two flanks of the triangular shopping centre there appear a block of flats, two minor hotels, students' residences, lodgings for railway crews, two concert halls, a business college and other leisure facilities.

The nearest equivalent to Euralille on this side of the Channel is Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, the first phase of which was completed three years ago at nearly identical cost. But stylistically, Canary Wharf harks back to the skyscrapers in turn-of-the-century Chicago, while functionally, it is a monoculture of offices. It was developed by one of the world's largest private developers, Olympia & York, with considerable tax breaks but little active support from the Government.

Most disastrously, the only public transport infrastructure in place was the Docklands Light Railway with its 'toy' trains. On completion three years ago, Canary Wharf was less than half let, and a year later Olympia & York went under.

In contrast, Euralille's shopping centre opened in September with virtually all shops trading and bustling with shoppers and passers-by. The whole development was built during a recession in less than four years, and only a hotel and two minor office towers were deferred to a later phase. The complexity has meant that at least 15 clients and a myriad of contractors and consultants have been working on top of one another.

Euralille is the product of a very French style of public-private development corporation. The corporation was set up by the city council, which drew in three other levels of local and regional government as well as a 46 per cent interest from private investors.

The private investors brought commercial nous and development funds, but the public majority shareholding ensured that the development was founded on well-planned public transport infrastructure. The mix prevented narrow commercial and provincial interests from compromising the inspired orchestration of the new city-within-a-city.

WHY BRITAIN HAS MISSED THE TRAIN Euralille is a massive, Blade Runner-like urban development. Its bravura architecture might not be to everyone's taste. It does, however, represent an important new way of looking at edge-of- town developments. On the fringes of Lille, the French are demonstrating how the giant retail, leisure and commercial centres so many of us say we want can be built without major damage to the urban or rural environment. In Britain, we have a passion for building such schemes - the banal litany of superstore, leisure centre, business park - well away from city centres and connected only by road. Such architectural behemoths are already environmental dinosaurs. Now that a Royal Commission is recommending a curb on road-building and usage, Euralille offers important lessons. Here is a comprehensive edge-of-town development built as part of an international railway junction. It is best reached not by car, but by train. Unlike most British developments, it is thus a part of the public and not the private realm. The fact that most of the commercial space at Euralille has been pre-let should encourage British developers and retailers to follow the train.

(Photograph omitted)

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