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The long journey to Chur's new station

New complements old in Chur

(swissinfo.ch)

Chur station has been a building site since April 2004 but when it’s completed, the area will boast offices, flats, training facilities and Alpine views.

It’s taken more than a decade of political debate for the SFr330 million ($268 million) refurbishment project to get off the ground. But the end result will be worth the effort.

The station square in Chur is not exactly a crowning achievement of Swiss architecture, even without the mess created by the current building work.

The sandstone station itself has its charm, but the area is spoiled by buildings thrown up during the architecturally barren 1960s.

Blocks devoid of any aesthetic value tower over the small, two-storey station building, encouraging travellers to get on with their journey as quickly as possible.

Buses rattle past the station entrance, trains on the Arosa railway carry passengers to visually more impressive places, and pedestrians dart about, seeking the most convenient way out of the area.

Mountain views

But that is all going to change with the new construction, architect Conradin Clavuot tells swissinfo.

"The new station area will be expansive and urban but will complement its surroundings. For me a view of the mountains was very important," said Clavuot.

Clavuot, a resident of canton Graubünden, of which Chur is the capital, won a competition in 2000 to design the new station. The existing building is to be restored and a new structure will be built to expand the station.

The architect’s intention is not to extend the present building but rather to create a wholly new space whose symmetry, dimensions and proportions fit the existing station. The new façade will be constructed out of glass and steel and will be connected to the existing building.

The new structure in fact fits over the old one, and its flat roof will jut out over the front and back of the sandstone building. Parts of the roof are to merge so the two structures coexist, but retain their separate identities.

In Clavuot’s words: "The two buildings will be connected like interlocking combs."

Beyond the station, two new buildings are to go up in the square in which it is located. One will house offices, the other residential flats.

The design of both will be in keeping with the station itself, creating an architecturally harmonious space in the centre of Chur. Yet another structure is going up behind the station, which the Federal Railways has already rented to the canton of Graubünden.

Arcade

Underneath Chur’s new station will be a 20-metre wide shopping arcade, illuminated largely by natural light. It will be directly accessible from the multi-storey car park, and be connected to the station square.

"It’s a question of how one arrives in a city," says Hans Rutishauser, an architectural conservation expert, who fought hard to have the arcade illuminated by daylight.

"Today we creep about like rats underneath our cities, and struggle to orientate ourselves when we emerge above ground," he told swissinfo. "This arcade is as much as possible open to the light above."

Setbacks

It’s been a long haul to the new station. Some 90 per cent of voters in Chur approved the project in a ballot in autumn 2003, but the planning, setbacks and related political processes lasted more than a decade.

In 1986, Graubünden architects Richard Brosi and Robert Obrist won a competition, set up to canvas ideas for a new railway station. They envisaged an enormous station hall, constructed of steel and glass.

By 1990, the Swiss Post Office had financed the building of part of this construction, and won the "Brunel Award" for its efforts. This fragment of the Brosi/Obrist vision today houses the Postbus station, where yellow buses transport locals and tourists alike to more remote areas not served by trains.

The Federal Railways originally intended to extend the structure to its platforms, but pulled out of the project for financial reasons.

Scenic

At the same time, the city of Chur wanted to move underground the platform for the Rhaetian Railway – which runs services on some of Switzerland’s most scenic routes. It had similar plans for the street-level Arosa Railway.

The suggestion provoked intensive discussions at a political level and was unceremoniously tossed out by the voters, who evidently preferred their trains to arrive and leave above ground.

The voters’ rejection was a cue for the national heritage and architecture conservationists to wade in with their objections. The 1990s dragged on with no movement except of course for the steady stream of ever-punctual Swiss trains. By 2000, the project was dead, and everything was back to square one.

Restoration

A more realistic version, approved by voters in 2003, preserves the integrity of the station building, dating to back 1878.

"We will not be making a copy, but restoring it as much as possible to the way it was," says Rutishauser.

"We don’t know exactly what the roof was made of at the time, but slate is far more attractive than the banal Eternit roof we have now, even if it is more expensive."

Rutishauser says cost pressures can be beneficial in pragmatic Switzerland.

"The pressure to save money restrains the typically Swiss idea that when something is broken, we buy a new one!"

Architect Clavuot is also happy with the way things have worked out.

"I took part in two competitions. The second one gave me the chance to correct mistakes I had made in the first. Now I’m happy with the proportions, and in three years the world will see a completely different station in Chur."

The new project has another big advantage, according to the Federal Railways project leader, Andreas Nef.

"We were sceptical about whether the scale of the project could be justified. With the current, more modest version, we can lease out any spaces that the Railways does not need."

swissinfo, Andreas Keiser in Chur

In brief

The new station area at Chur is expected to cost SFr330 million.

The old station building is being restored and expanded with a modern extension.

Three other buildings are being erected in the station area, as well as an underground arcade and a multi-storey parking lot.

The current building project is the result of years of planning, setbacks and political debate.

90% of Chur residents approved the project.

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