Review

ARTIC bullet-train station a curious, conspicuous bit of symbolism

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic
The placelessness of the ARTIC station is tough to defend: It is tall. It is shiny. It is oddly antiseptic

Construction will begin next month on the first stretch of California's high-speed rail network. It will run from Fresno to Madera.

Earlier this month, a sleek, glass-wrapped $189-million building that officials are promoting as the state's first high-speed station opened to the public. It's in Anaheim, next to the 57 Freeway, very close to both the Honda Center and Angel Stadium.

The distance between those two parts of California, between the Central Valley and the heart of Orange County, gives you a pretty good sense of how dramatically the state has mismanaged the bullet-train project.

We're putting the high-speed train where there are no people, relatively speaking. And we're putting the new station where there are no high-speed trains.

Even supporters of the bullet train — and I am unabashedly one — have to admit that this is not a careful effort to build links in what will eventually be an efficient chain running from the Bay Area to Southern California.

This is more like a primer on how to engineer a gap-toothed infrastructural smile.

Against that backdrop, the new station — known officially as the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, or ARTIC — rises as a curious, conspicuous bit of architectural symbolism.

Produced by the architecture firm HOK (which also designed the Honda Center and contributed to the 1998 renovation of Angel Stadium), ARTIC is as much billboard as building, as much advertisement for the appeal of train travel as actual place for people to board trains.

Currently, about 900 passengers board Metrolink and Amtrak trains in Anaheim each day. Within a few years, according to the rosiest projections, ARTIC will be serving between 5,000 and 10,000 travelers daily, including those using buses and various shuttles. Union Station in downtown Los Angeles serves about 75,000.

Give ARTIC this much: It embraces its stage-set role with gusto. The station delivers with photogenic conviction a largely romantic message about the virtues of car-free travel. From the outside, with its vaulted and highly Instagram-able profile, it looks a little like a giant covered wagon.

Moving past Southern California's reliance on the automobile is going to require architectural as well as infrastructural leaps of faith. There are worse things to endorse than an emerging, still-uncertain transportation paradigm for the region and state.

And this particular symbol can be seen very clearly by drivers stuck in grinding traffic on both the 57 and the 5 freeways. It is even more dramatic, more of a beacon, at night. It's also less than five miles from Disneyland.

So let's not condemn ARTIC for its tenuous connection to the way people now travel across Orange County. Fifteen or 20 years from now, the picture may be very different.

The placelessness of the station's design, though, is much tougher to defend.

Wrapped in a skin of metal panels, glass and ETFE — the same puffy, Teflon-like material that covers the "Water Cube" swimming venue at the Beijing Olympics — ARTIC suggests a cross between a small regional airport and a semi-pro arena.

It is tall. It is shiny. It is also oddly antiseptic.

In the hazy distance, you can see the Coyote and Puente hills through its expanses of glass. But the architects seem to have scoured the interior of the station to remove all traces of regional influence.

This evacuated character is made all the more noticeable by ARTIC's drawn-out circulation pattern. When you arrive by train, as I did on a recent morning, you exit onto an uncovered platform, take the elevator or stairs to a pedestrian bridge, and then enter the building at its highest interior level.

You have gone outside to go back inside. You have gone up, very soon, to go down.

The view from that top level of ARTIC is remarkable. The building drops away dramatically in front of you, to a mezzanine that will hold restaurants, and then to a wide ground floor with ticket windows and more shops.

If you come the other way — to catch a train — you move through the arched, glass-sheathed front façade and move up through the station to the walkway and then down to the tracks. Bus stops, meanwhile, ring the exterior of the building.

It's worth pausing here to note that when ARTIC boosters say the station is designed for high-speed rail, they're not really saying much at all, at least in architectural terms. The high-speed trains will likely run on the same tracks Amtrak and Metrolink use now. The bullet train would bring more passengers, of course, and ARTIC's scale anticipates those bigger crowds.

Otherwise, there's no real connection between high-speed travel and the design of the station; in fact, accommodating bullet-train service will require adding a number of features, including security screening and perhaps a separate seating area.

ARTIC more than anything is a postcard-ready, stand-alone object, not so much woven into the train network as looming over it.

The landscape design, by SWA Group, underlines this sense of separation. There's a small planted area between the parking lot and the front of the station. It doesn't come close to touching the building. Architecture and landscape seem to repel each other. You could sooner get a plant to grow on the hood of your car than on ARTIC's sleek, silvery exterior.

It's not difficult to imagine a design for the station that might have made sense here — and, more to the point, might have made sense of this odd site, so close to Orange County's top tourist attractions but so empty of context and obvious character.

This is not a question of architectural style as much as sensibility. A different design might have kept arriving passengers close to the ground — and made a virtue of that closeness. It might have blurred the distinction between inside and out, rather than ratcheting it up.

It might have aimed for an authentic sense of arrival — and an inventive, forward-looking take on regional character — rather than showing off the sort of anonymous engineering prowess that would seem equally at home in Tacoma, Wash., or St. Louis.

And perhaps most important of all, it might have knit together architecture and landscape, building and planting, courtyard and waiting room, in the same way that Union Station does — giving ARTIC not a static, glimmering symbolic power but one capable of growing over time, as the high-speed network expands.

In the Southern California climate, plants can have the scale and presence of architecture, while architecture can have the lightness and evanescence of a garden. (Ruth Shellhorn's original landscape work at Disneyland takes real advantage of this fluidity.) And train travel — linear, literally grounded — has an obvious kinship with landscape architecture.

ARTIC, impractically but proudly vertical, generic and denuded where it might have been lush and particular, seems to go out of its way to ignore all that.

Follow me on Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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