September 26, 2005
Florence goes underground
Notebook: Architecture by Marcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent
IN JUST five years’ time there will be a sensational new way to arrive in Florence. Some 170 high-speed trains a day will serve the city. At peak times they will arrive every 10 minutes, depositing passengers in the centre, close to the much-admired 1930s station by Giovanni Michelucci.
For the design of its new TGV station, Florence, the most Italian of cities, has turned to a foreigner. It chose Norman Foster over Spain’s Santiago Calatrava and Japan’s Arata Isozaki (who many Florentines have apparently not forgiven for the “risky entrance” he proposed to the Uffizi gallery).
More than half the high-speed line from Bologna to Florence, says Foster, is in tunnels and the new station will sit in a giant excavated box 450m long, 25m deep and 50m wide, rather like Foster and Partners’ dramatic Underground station at Canary Wharf. The question everyone asks is whether the station will have any distinguishing elements that will announce to passengers that they are in Florence rather than Bilbao or Berlin.
Foster is not given to overt historic references of any kind, but here his partner David Nelson explains their simple solution: “The Florentine element will lie in the materials.” The platforms will be paved in Verde Alpi, the green marble familiar on the Duomo and other Florentine churches. It will be formed into striking patterns, alternating with white marble. Abundant use will also be made of bronze, an echo of Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors to the Baptistery. It will be used for details which elsewhere would be executed in stainless steel and also for the large columns which will be clad in bronze. “It will be more expensive, but still only a tiny proportion of the overall construction budget,” explains Nelson.
One great quality of all Foster’s best buildings is the intelligent and enlivening use of natural light. Underground stations usually depend heavily on artificial light. Here Fosters, working with Arups, the engineers, have devised an arching roof which keeps a sense of cool and shade while allowing shafts of sunlight to stream down to platform level. Light enters through the diamond- latticed roof, descending through large triangular cut-outs in the ground-level concourse.
The shade is provided initially by dramatic roof projections of more than 50 metres at either end of the station, so that taxi and car drop-offs and pick-ups can be made out of the rain or sun. At Foster’s Stansted airport the over-sailing roof, though majestic, does not project far enough to protect those forced to alight in an outer drop-off lane.
Foster’s cantilevers have the look of giant sharks’ mouths, a rival to the intense drama of Jean Nouvel’s portico which shoots out over the lake on his Lucerne concert hall. With a daily average of 38,800 passengers expected, the descent to the platforms will be made by eight pairs of travelators (for those with trolleys), 20 escalators and 22 lifts.
Fosters has completed the working drawings and the scheme will shortly go out to tender, with completion forecast for 2010.