The role that train travel plays in the American popular imagination is an increasingly contradictory one these days, somehow deeply nostalgic and symbolic of the future at the same time.
Getting from one city to another by train remains a thoroughly romanticized exercise -- a humane relic of a more cosmopolitan and energy-efficient era in transportation. And yet trains have also become a key component of efforts by young planners, architects and politicians to re-imagine or revivify American urbanism, with separate piles of federal and state funds -- in California's case, nearly $10 billion -- already earmarked for a network of new high-speed rail links.
The design for a $180-million train station and transit hub in Anaheim, by the Los Angeles office of the giant architecture firm HOK and engineers from Parsons Brinckerhoff, tries its best to enclose those contradictions under a single vaulted roof. Known officially as the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, or ARTIC, the planned station is suffused with a sepia-toned futurism -- with longing for what will be as well as for what was.
In winning the right to design the project, slated to fill a 16-acre, wedge-shaped piece of land along the 57 Freeway and the Santa Ana River, roughly midway between Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, HOK beat out a high-powered list of competitors, including architect-engineer partnerships headlined by Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava. It did so with a design that shares more than a few qualities with the hugely popular retro baseball stadiums produced by the firm's sports-architecture wing, once called HOK Sport and now, as an independent entity, known as Populous.
The station, expected to be finished by 2013, will be full of modern amenities and rely on sophisticated engineering. Its exterior frame will combine long-span steel beams, producing largely column-free interior space, with ETFE, the material that covered the "water cube" swimming facility at last summer's Beijing Olympics. It will have to execute a gymnastic flexibility in slipping next to and eventually under the 57 overpass near Angel Stadium. Its tracks will have to accommodate Amtrak and Metrolink trains, as well as the anticipated high-speed line between Northern and Southern California and, possibly, another between Anaheim and Las Vegas.
As a visual symbol, ARTIC will operate quite differently. It will appeal to a charming, essentially 19th century notion of the train station as a place of metropolitan arrival: a grand portal designed to deliver passengers directly into the middle of a crowded, bustling city, lending some sense of glamour to a train trip simply by a kind of architectural osmosis. As the terminus of the California high-speed line's first phase, which will also pass through Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, the station will mark a significant entrance to Orange County -- and, in the process, perhaps produce the landmark, the symbol of place and character, that the county has always lacked (with the exception of its beaches and Disneyland, of course, which are nothing to sneeze at).
Clearly, the HOK design's sense of grand symbolism is a large part of what appealed to the city of Anaheim and the Orange County Transportation Authority, which jointly are planning the station. The architects and Parsons Brinckerhoff submitted a pair of design concepts as part of their entry. The first featured a low, pavilion-like building with a cone-shaped form, wrapped in digital lighting panels, emerging through the roof. Decorated with the Angels logo, with Disney characters or a happy-new-year message, the cone would have acted as a digital beacon.
But it was the team's second concept that prevailed. It is more explicitly connected to the history of train travel and train-station architecture than the first, inspired by the high-ceilinged spaces of Grand Central Terminal in New York as well as hangars in the Orange County city of Tustin.
It will stretch a dramatic vaulted ceiling 150 feet above the main arrival hall. It mixes in further references to Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the soaring volumes of the much-mourned old Pennsylvania Station and Calatrava's skeletal, bone-white design for a new transit hub at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan.
Of course, in Orange County, the idea of stepping from a train right into the middle of dense urban life -- the way you might exit Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, say, or London's Paddington -- is an obvious fiction. And it will remain a fiction for many decades, if not indefinitely. Many more people will likely see the station's arched profile, in certain ways so symbolic of the rebirth of train travel, from their cars on the freeway than as they walk to or from a train.
The HOK design does its best to sketch out a path to future density, at least in the area immediately surrounding the station. To the north and east -- away from Angel Stadium and toward the Honda Center -- the firm's master plan for the site imagines a close-knit collection of shops, offices and housing leading through landscaped open space toward a riverside park. But the construction of those elements has been reserved for later phases of development, when the commercial real-estate market has bounced back.
The first phase of the project -- the station itself, covering 66,000 square feet -- is essentially fully funded already, by a mixture of county tax money and state bond and transportation funds. But if the state's high-speed line is delayed or killed, or if the mixed-use portion of the development is never built, the station could wind up rising grandly over a collection of parking garages or empty lots, alongside a mostly dry riverbed.
A central part of high-speed rail's appeal, of course, is environmental. Going by train from Anaheim to San Francisco -- a trip high-speed advocates say could take less than three hours -- is far more efficient, as far as carbon footprints go, than traveling by Southwest or SUV. High-speed rail is a fundamental part of the growing effort, known as green urbanism, to make metropolitan areas more sustainable and less dependent on cars and suburban sprawl. In that sense, ARTIC, whatever the shortcomings of its striking but somewhat derivative architectural approach, is poised to take up a position as the most prominent piece of green architecture in Orange County and one of the most prominent in Southern California.
As such, it will reflect one of the curious aspects of a rising interest in energy-efficiency and sustainability in American culture and politics. In many cases, progress on the green front will be measured by how quickly we can re-create a new or souped-up version of what we once, many decades ago, took for granted. This is certainly true of efforts to promote high-speed rail; other examples include the truly walkable mixed-use neighborhood, that holy Grail of green urbanism, as well as a new generation of raised shotgun houses for New Orleans.
For many American cities, what's past is, if not prologue, then at least template.