Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers – the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries'; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880








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