Philip Hensher: If only airports had the glamour of railway stations

Railway stations loom so large in the collective imagination it's surprising how neglected they are
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The Independent Online

Norman Foster's renovation and rethinking of Dresden's main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof has been greeted as one of the most spectacular additions to this once very beautiful city.

Dresden has been treated as a showpiece of unification, and the reconstructions of its splendid baroque centre which the DDR carried out have been speeded up and more lavishly appointed by the new Germany. Along with the celebrated baroque palaces and churches, there is an enormous amount of belle epoque architecture in Dresden, and nothing more beautiful than the railway station.

It's not quite the most wonderful railway station in Germany - that prize, surely, goes to the breathtaking Hauptbahnhof in Leipzig. The first time I travelled in east Germany, the stations were in their DDR shabbiness. If Dresden was a gloomy and rather depressing place to arrive at, Leipzig, even in its unattended state, always lifted the spirits with its grand scale. Now, scrubbed and gleaming, Leipzig is a wonderfully glamorous gateway to that very stylish city.

Railway stations are mythical, poetic places, and loom so large in the collective imagination that it's surprising how neglected they are. It's not hard to think of railway terminuses which are among the most beautiful buildings in their cities.

Florence railway station has stiff competition from its city, but is probably the one truly stylish building of the Fascist era. Grand Central Station in New York is also, deservedly, a most popular film set. The great Indian railway terminuses, especially Calcutta and Bombay, are thrilling places - it's no wonder that many great Indian novels, such as Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy or Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance start or end in these pregnant settings.

The showy splendour of the Paris stations, particularly the Gare de Lyons on its supercilious height, is unforgettable. On a smaller scale, there is Brunel's grand station at Bristol, the terminus at Brighton, or the spectacular arrival into Edinburgh.

But of British stations, the palm must be taken by Brunel's sublime Paddington Station, and of course St Pancras. Built by George Gilbert Scott in what Lytton Strachey describes as a fit of bad temper after he failed to have his way with the new Foreign Office, it's one of the oddest and most glamorous of Victorian objects. I wait nervously to see what it will look like, revamped as the Channel Tunnel terminal.

Writers and artists of the time saw the poetic potential of these wonderful inventions. Architects were presented, in the invention of the railways, by a new challenge, which they met in splendidly creative ways. The idea of a huge open-ended pavilion must have seemed quite fantastical at first.

If you go to see the Guildhall Art Gallery's wonderful exhibition of the paintings of William Frith, on at the moment, you'll see in The Railway Station one response to the wild cavalcade of humanity which these buildings hosted.

Other painters responded more to the novel interior effects of light and steam. Turner had celebrated Brunel's Great Western Railway with a vision of a steam train crossing the bridge at Maidenhead - still a view to make the heart soar. Monet and Manet painted wild, tempestuous paintings of the great shed of the Gare Saint-Lazare filled with steam, like thunderstorms under a roof.

Even today, with railway terminuses filling up with shopping centres, even if you know the train will be overcrowded and expensive and probably late, even if it's a journey you take all the time, some of these wonderful buildings can strike you with an inexpressible glamour.

It's a moot point why railway stations have this effect on the traveller, and not airports. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single airport with the style or glamour of dozens of railway stations. They all look like out-of-town shopping centres, made out of vast sheets of corrugated iron. When they are distinctive, such as Charles de Gaulle or Berlin Tegel, they are just ridiculous buildings; mostly they are glum, off- the-peg constructions.

And hardly ever do they have the simple beauty and logic of a railway station. I had a short fit of rage when I saw that Richard Rogers' Terminal 4 at Madrid won the Stirling Prize for architecture last year. In March, I missed a connecting flight there and almost missed a second, so illogical and confusing is its layout. If you want to go to any given floor - for instance to get a connecting train - you have to find exactly the right lift, which may be miles away from the others and hardly signposted at all. None of the lifts, as far as I could see, serve all the levels, and getting through this wretched construction requires half a dozen requests for help from a determinedly monoglot staff and a walk of about a mile and a half.

Security demands will always make airports more intricate than railway stations, but I don't know why they should have less glamour. Some writers have thought the glamour of railway stations rests in the destinations they serve; all the languor of Cornwall present in the halls of Paddington, the tranquillity of the Fens implicit at Liverpool Street.

But that ought to be true of airports, too, and in fact railway stations are thrilling places in themselves. They are the great cathedrals of the industrial age, and in Norman Foster's light-filled transformation of the Dresden Hauptbahnhof, just as in the shabbiest and most unrestored of urban terminals, you can sense a degree of excitement at doing something completely new; an excitement which has never quite departed.