The pitfalls and perils of public transit projects

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This article originally appeared in the LEAF Architecture Review

Mass public rail and transit projects give architects the opportunity to work on a scale offered by few other commissions, with the chance to build major new urban landmarks and transform cities. But how have demands shifted since the “golden age” of public infrastructure works, and how much space do practices have to think ambitiously? Oliver Hotham speaks with Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Director at AZPML, Colin Bennie of John McAslan + Partners, and Jeff Doble of Perkins + Will, about the challenge of balancing creativity with public accountability.

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus at the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub in New York was intended to resemble a bird being released from a child’s hand, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the staggering cost to the taxpayer. Described by press as the “world’s most expensive train station”, Calatrava’s personal cut came to a reported $80 million of the $4 billion spent. Built as it was from the ruins of the worst terrorist attack in recent US history, it’s easy to see why Calatrava’s work caused controversy.

Public transit projects are something of a double-edged sword for architects. On the one hand, they appeal to their boldest ambitions and grandest tendencies: the opportunity to influence the designs of buildings that will be used by millions, and to shape urban spaces for generations, is what inspires many to get involved in the profession in the first place. But on the other, the degree of public scrutiny and, some would argue, interference, means that politics consistently gets in the way of good work.

It wasn’t always like this.  The World Trade Centre Transportation Hub drew comparisons with another behemoth of New York public transit: Grand Central Terminal, designed and built in the first decade of the 20th century for $80 million (adjusted for inflation) of private money. Widely credited with launching a construction boom and massive economic growth for the USA’s largest city, Grand Central Terminal was just one achievement of what’s often seen as a golden age for public transit: as urban centres across the US and Western Europe transformed into massive metropolitan areas, public transport became an essential part of increasingly essential infrastructure.

But when international practice AZPML began work on the Birmingham New Street Station, the conflict between the creative and the public side dominated what should have been a bold attempt to remake the centre of a historic city. In a well-publicised spat, AZPML resigned from the £600 million project after an extended conflict with Network Rail. The practice eventually returned to finish the design, but director Alejandro Zaera-Polo is insistent it could have been much better executed.

“What could have been an outstanding design remains a kind of half-cooked project,” he says. “On the one hand I’m very angry about the way the project has been handled, but at the same time I think we’ve achieved most of what we set out to do at the beginning.”

From Zaera-Polo’s perspective, much of the project’s shortcomings lay in the public side’s perceptions about the dangers of giving architects too much free reign. Fear of a boondoggle, in short, led to a boondoggle.

“These projects are so large that they end up mediated by large project management companies, and people that are supposed to know better and often they know worse,” he says. “I think that’s one of the risks of getting involved in these projects: at some point they decided to give the design leadership to the project managers, and that’s a huge mistake.”

This led to decisions that were, the architect argues, costly and ineffective, and serious disagreement between AZPML and Network Rail over everything from design to materials used. Certain girders and walkways did not fit with the rest of the plan, and the practice accused their former partners of a “serious strategic mistake” in replacing stainless steel with aluminium in some parts of the station. The measures were taken to reduce costs, of course, but AZPML is convinced they seriously compromised the project.

But there are still places where architects are encouraged to think ambitiously and given great scope to reshape urban landscapes. When Perkins+Will was commissioned to design three prototype stations for general use on the Saudi capital’s new metro system, the Riyadh Development Authority gave the practice space to be creative.

“There were specific requirements from the technical perspective, but as far as the creative freedom, developing the architectural identity of the stations it was very open,” says Jeff Doble, director of transportation design at the practice’s Vancouver office. “Our values were very well aligned: their priority was the passenger, the experience of the stations and making a high quality project.

“It was refreshing to have a client who really is with you all the way, compared to other projects where it may be a challenge.”

Much of this is down to the fact that, simply, public sector projects are under far less public scrutiny that their European or American counterparts: as long as the practice keeps the client in the loop, there’s not much risk of a Birmingham Station style intervention in the design process.

“This is really because of their politics,” admits Doble. “In Saudi Arabia these projects’ approval process is streamlined and they can really just move forward with these quite quickly.

“In other parts of the world where it’s tax dollars and the public’s money that’s being spent there’s a need to find support from the public for these projects.”

An expert on the complex management of these kinds of undertakings, Doble has been involved with many Perkins + Will’s large scale transit work, from developing a metro system for Vancouver to a new line for Honolulu. But Riyadh is his most ambitious to date: when it opens in 2018, it will be the world’s largest transit system to have been designed and built at one time, with 175 kilometres of rail and over 80 stations to be built in four years. The oil-rich city’s development authority was happy to spend big on its new metro for good reason: in a country dominated by car drivers, convincing locals to give up their 4x4s for the train means the public transport system will really have to shine.

“The client realised was that these stations needed to be very high quality in order to appeal to a population that was very car centric, very used to cheaply operating the automobiles, it was really all about the high quality experience,” says Doble. “So we really wanted to make these metro stations exciting and sleek and modern and contemporary.

“They’ve done everything they can to really make this a great system for the citizens there, and hopes that there will be some great uptake.”

Riyadh may be the exception rather than the rule, and in cities where public transport system have been round for a while the job of the architect changes, and fitting in is more important than standing out. In 2019, for example, London will see the full opening of a whole new line of its Underground system: Crossrail (to be known as the Elizabeth Line). It’s been a costly and drawn-out process, but the new line will transform the city: connecting previously unconnected parts of town and reducing the commuting times of millions of people.

Responsible for the upgrade of the iconic Bond Street Station and the construction of an entirely new entrance was John McAslan + Partners, the practice behind the 2012 pre-Olympics upgrade of Kings Cross Station as well as several other Crossrail stations.

“The station building is like a well-tailored suit, not trying too hard to be seen” says Colin Bennie, a transport architect and associate at the practice. “You’re dealing with a part of London where there’s a lot of heritage to respond to, so it’s all very contextual and subtle.”

McAslan + Partners designed the two entrance structures to the station: areas with the most obviously relationship to the world outside – and have the most marked impact on the surrounding area. And this is where the perennial battle of ideas returns: public authorities are terrified that a wayward architectural practice will ruin a historical area.

“This kind of thing is part and parcel of the process,” argues Bennie. “If it’s managed properly it can be constructive. What I’m worried about with Crossrail is the oversight over the development becomes a huge part of the station’s identity.”

In their defence, it makes sense that public authorities might be a little afraid of handing too much power to a practice over projects that have major political and social significance, and this isn’t necessarily an idea that architects disagree with.

“I am all for restraint,” says Zaera-Polo. “I think that architects thoroughly deserve the doubts that decision makers have developed over time. In the past they’ve been the origin of a lot of problems. The problem is that clients are so scared about the cost of these projects and the need to control them financially, that often the design structure of the project becomes oversized.”

Speaking with architects you’d be forgiven for thinking that, when it comes to public transit, there are only two options: a failed, overpriced project in an open system or an efficient, fiscally responsible one in a closed one. But it’s not as simple as that, and while the public certainly have a right to a say in the projects they are paying for, architects need to be given the space to work and be creative while remaining transparent about the project. Ultimately, the most democratic system will lie somewhere in between.

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