Photo by Patricia Esteve
She might be waiting for a class or a train
March 2007 - The grand Estació de França has been a Barcelona landmark virtually since it was inaugurated during the 1929 Universal Exhibition. It was an extension and reinvigoration of the Barcelona-Mataró railway station, which was originally built in 1848. Arches form the main shell or roof for the building—a shape not too dissimilar from many other classical railway stations around the world, such as Charing Cross in London, Grand Central in New York City or Paris’s Gare du Nord.
Given the sheer size of the wide open spaces within the building’s confines, rooms (or halls, as some are quite large) had been used as exhibition and conference spaces for many years. Both the interior and the exterior are more attractive and visually appealing than Estació Barcelona Sants, the city’s other train station.
However, Sants station has now definitively become the city’s main railway hub, and the Estaçió de França has taken a back seat as far as train services are concerned. The building has, therefore, been put to other uses. One of the most interesting and innovative is that the current Estació de França building contains a university within it. It is a clever use of floor space in an inner city environment. The station building itself, is actually the property of the national train company, RENFE. Architects Jaume Llobet and Josep Benito began renovation work in September 1993, after parts of the station complex were ceded to the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF).
The 123-metre-long façade of the building still serves as a train station today, complete with the usual features: ticketing halls, waiting area and cafeteria. There are two adjoining buildings on either side of the main façade that are perpendicular to it and are opposite each other. The southern wing is known as the Ocata building and the northen wing as the França building and they straddle both sides of the train station, thus forming a U-shape building around the station’s platforms. ‘‘It’s quite cool. You can see people on the platforms from one of the university’s restrooms,’’ according to UPF student Gustavo De Vita, from Brazil.
The university’s total surface area is 15,558 square metres. A few years after it was handed over to the UPF, the Ocata building was opened. While holding classes in a train station might seem less than ideal, the soundproofing is more than adequate, according to De Vita. “Sometimes you can hear the trains’ horns, but that’s about it.’’
Reminders of large, elegant reception rooms can still be seen. Original light fixtures, chandeliers, doorways and stairwells are still in place. It is a quirky sight when contrasted with the modern, clean and sometimes bland tones of the university’s new facilities. The Ocata building hosts the UPF Foundation headquarters as well as the Communication Centre, and the modern Audiovisual University Institute. The França building is home to UPF’s Computing and Telecommunication departments.
Both buildings are excellent examples of innovative use of urban space, an intelligent modification of what might have wound up as a vast, empty, under-used hulk of a building. Instead, it continues to be a vibrant part of the city’s fabric, one that continues not only to be pleasing to the eye, but to play an active and important role in the lives of numerous city residents.
The trains may not come so frequently, but the knowledge passed along will serve, in itself, to carry people a long way.