Architecture: Station soars to a higher plane - Futuristic trains meet planes at Gare Lyon-Satolas, a glorious, gravity-defying evocation of a new railway age. Jonathan Glancey reports

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The Independent Culture
It had to happen. Now that express trains resemble grounded airliners, even in their seat arrangement, the speed they travel at and the culture they operate in, the day of the railway station as air terminal has dawned.

You could argue that it fluttered over the horizon some 30 years ago, proferring such sad buildings as Euston Station (British Rail Architects Department, 1961-65), a pale imitation of the glum terminals designed for Heathrow in the previous decade by Frederick Gibberd & Partners.

The bravado and brand new station that Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect-engineer, has raised at Lyon- Satolas International Airport, on the edge of Lyon, is much closer in spirit to Eileel Saarinen's soaring TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport (the most romantic airport building of the first jet age) than to the banal shoeboxes that sheltered Europe's fastest trains and planes from the late Fifties. Calatrava's station, designed to serve the 300km an hour TGVs of SNCF, is also far removed from those great industrial cathedrals - Gare du Nord, Grand Central or St Pancras - that blessed the nascent railway age.

Saarinen designed that expressive TWA terminal in the guise of a giant concrete bird; Calatrava has done the same - in concrete and steel - at Lyon-Satolas.

The new TGV station is far more dramatic than the airport it serves (designed by Guillaume Gillet, opened 1974), holding the eye whether arriving here by coach or shooting the clouds above in an Airbus. If the jet-age train has arrived, it is here at Lyon. The prognathous TGVs, the Mallard of our day, are so impressive they deserve a special architecture.

They also need one. Those that refuse to stop here scythe through the station at 260km an hour. As it would be imprudent to stand anywhere near a platform edge as one of these wingless planes rockets by, Calatrava has given them dedicated tracks through the station, concealed in a concrete vault. On either side of the vault are the 1,650ft- long canopied platforms serving trains meeting planes.

Above the vault is a mesmeric covered walkway giving access to trains on either side by escalator, lift and stair. This cathedral-like walkway passes through the spectacular central concourse - a steel, concrete and glass eagle - which, in turn, rises to an elevated walkway, 590ft long, that plugs into the air terminal.

The experience of arriving inside the aquiline concourse is elevating. Eye soars with roof into a steel-age Gothic vault, 105ft high, that does its damnedest to defy the laws of gravity - the roof of a medieval cathedral performing aerobatics with a little help from computer-aided design and the Swiss wind-tunnel boffins of Emmen.

As the eye dives down, it focuses on the giant, sculpted departure board rising from the central point of Europe's most exciting new room. To its left and right are swooping concrete portals through which passengers pass to reach their trains. The space between portals and vault is filled with glass held in place by skeletal steel ribs. From these the building's steel wings unfold - an image of flight that also acts as an extremely effective sunshade.

From the balcony bar and exhibition gallery, to the lavatories and benches, streetlamps and handrails, every detail of this pounds 55m building is lovingly finished. It is a real pleasure to use. It is also a homage to the spirit in which the French have set about ordering their railways and integrating their transport system.

Why has Calatrava needed to sing with such operatic gusto? Why not? Here at Lyon-Satolas, there is no architectural context for the designer to have concerned himself with (the place is a desert in all but name), so he has taken the opportunity to build heroically, something his predecessors rarely hesitated from doing whether at St Pancras or Penn Station or Milan Centrale.

The lyonnais appear to be impressed. In the fortnight leading up to the station's opening last month, 30,000 citizens rode out by bus to tour it (it has yet to be connected to the local railway network), ushered round by a bevy of glamorous guides. From what I could make out, the general reaction was one of proprietorially smug stupefaction. Could we show the same enthusiasm for a daring new building in Britain? Did trainloads of Londoners rush out to greet the arrival of the excellent new terminal at Stansted Airport? Trains might fly.

(Photographs omitted)

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