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.





Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.





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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