Nille Juul-Sørensen, director of architecture at Arup in London, specialises in the design of train stations and specifically the upgrading of their layout and facilities to create new uses aligned with contemporary ways of living.

He has won numerous awards for his work in Denmark including the Eckersberg Medal for his work on the Copenhagen Metro and the Kasper Salin Prize for the Trianglen Station in Malmo.

Architecture & Design caught up with Juul-Sørensen upon his recent visit to discuss the concept “hacking” and its applicability in Australia.

Can you explain your phrase “hacking” the design?

I think the definition of hacking is “the practice of modifying the features of a system, in order to accomplish a goal outside of the creator's original purpose.” This basically means you take something we all understand and then you modify it to have other functions you do not expect. In Denmark, they have hacked an aquatic centre and a public library, and in another project, they have hacked a power station and a ski slope. These are things you normally do not think will work together, but surprisingly something very unexpected happens when you add them together. The users and loans of books go up and a “dead building” (in this case a power station) gets very active.

In rail terms, you could ask how do we add a hack to our stations that will twist the station into something different for people and passengers?

When the railways first came to the cities the station was the most prominent building and the area around was in for growth. With the introduction of cars our cities have turned their backs to stations and now the environment around these stations are not the most pleasant ones, especially at night. When there are no trains, there is no activity.

In the last couple of decades, the station has come back as a prominent building but for one reason or another we have adopted the language of airport design. We design a station and not the area around the station. The only thing we might add to the station is a kiosk or a café.

We need to consider how a station will interact with the urban fabric and how we can design the precinct so the station is not the jewel but the enabler for a stronger community that supports growth. I love stations but I have to admit that in a city the station is not the important part – it’s everything else.

“Hacking” the station design may bring useful civil functions into one place for the community, but how do you ensure that the design avoids congestion and overcrowding? Wouldn’t it be easier to separate these functions?  

The rail industry is a very conservative industry if you compare it to other industries. There are layers and layers of tradition in this business and sometimes it feels that they do not see how changing technology applies to the way we travel. In a few years there will be no ticket gates and the way we pay for our journey will be different. You could say that we do not need the ticket area anymore.

Technology will allow us to navigate in stations and cities in a totally different way. This means that congestion problems, wayfinding and overcrowding will not happen. Thinking about it – we currently design stations for a 100-year life time, but what will transport look like in 100 years? Or even 50 years. We will have different transport modes, autonomous vehicles for example, so maybe there will be no need for a station. What then? Do we convert stations into other facilities like concerts and event halls or community spaces?

When working with clients have you had to push for a design that combines civil functions, or have you seen a demand for these designs?

More and more of the clients we speak to see the potential of changing the station to have more than one function. Shopping centres is the easy second function but ideas from communal gardens on big roofs, libraries and other civil functions are also discussed.

There is still a way to go but politicians and planners are becoming more aware of the impact design decisions have on the urban context and how areas can be energised by a new transport hub.

When designing, you consider the now, the new and the next. How do you approach this when designing a station?

We are always very aware of the now. How do we deliver on the brief we have from our clients, but while doing this we also start to explore the new. In rail projects, which typically have a long timeframe from concept to inauguration, we challenge the brief by imagining what might the new things be that could have a major impact on our design. Ticketing could be an item for discussion with our clients, new modes of transport and so on.

We then start thinking about the next. What will be the things we can just imagine but could have an influence on what we are conceptualising now, and how can we package these thoughts for our next jobs? That’s why Arup invests in our ‘Future of…’ publications to start capturing what the future could look like and how will this influence our next designs. For instance, what would happen if energy was free? This would probably change a lot of how we will commute and design buildings.

Of all your train station projects, which do you believe is the best example of “hacking” the design? 

That is a difficult question. St Pancras with the combination of shopping, restaurants and rail is a good example and hopefully more will come. The new Canary Warf Station in London is an example where the shopping and leisure part opened years before the station. Right now we are trying to influence our station jobs with the “hack” but this can be difficult because these jobs are normally divided – the railway station remains separate to potential retail and leisure areas.

I think developers and clients are seeing the benefit of “hacking” the design and in the future, we will be involved in projects where the station and the urban fabric is weaved into each other. Lots of small to medium sized stations will benefit from having a “hack”, bringing life back to the station and the area surrounding them.

You recently visited Sydney, how do you believe the design of the imminent Light Rail and Metro projects address the idea of “hacking”?

Sydney is very fast becoming aware of the potential of integrating public transport fully into the urban context. The Sydney Light Rail and Sydney Metro projects are examples of this learning curve. I think in the future we will see many more examples of the hack in Australian cities, perhaps as part of repurposing of old railway stations – regenerated into new multi-purpose centres of urban life, as well as travel.