Beyond Buildings


Connecting to Larger Forces: Dutch Train Stations Show the Way

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Yes we can. At least in the Netherlands. If that sounds like an old refrain, it is also the song of construction that is transforming six of that country’s major transportation centers into multi-modal intersections that will enhance public transportation well into this century. After my despairing blog post on the state of American infrastructure, it was refreshing to take a one-day jaunt to that country (I know, my carbon footprint is embarrassing) and see the work going on there.


The train stations of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht, the country’s four largest cities, are all under construction, forcing you to wind your way through a labyrinth of fences to makeshift platforms and waiting areas. Not only that, but the projects are almost all taking much too long: construction crews started on the Rotterdam station, envisioned by a design team headed by Benthem and Crouwel, the architects also for Utrecht and Amsterdam, and for Schiphol Airport, five years ago, and it will not be finished for another three. The stations also do not have the grandeur of the French prototypes–no Calatrava arches will soar beyond the everyday into some grand vision of flying trapezes.


What matters more is that the crews are still working. The economic crisis did not slow them down. The Dutch, along with the French and the Germans, realize that such investments are necessary. They are also improving the means of transportation themselves with everything from a seamless payment system that works for every bus, tram, subway and train around the country, to new trains with better, seats, lighting, and WiFi.


Rotterdam. Courtesy: Benthem Crouwel Architects


Rotterdam. Courtesy: Benthem Crouwel Architects


Rotterdam. Courtesy: Benthem Crouwel Architects


The stations themselves are not going to change the world through their design, though they will be elegant and, at times, grand. The most striking element in the big projects will be the Rotterdam station hall, which will rise up to an 80-foot peak pointing from the tracks to the downtown core. My favorite elements in the design, produced by a team led by Benthem Crouwel, are the columns that start out as arches over the lower platforms, rise up to a single member, and then split up at a 90-degree angle from the first arch to support the roof. Engineering and space-making come together in ways that lets the eye follow the building’s logic while delighting in the grandeur of the collective space that order produces.


Arnhem Station Courtesy: UN Studio


The Arnhem Station, designed by Ben van Berkel’s and Caroline Bos’ UN Studio, is the most radical in its attempt to have all of the surfaces, from parking garage floors, to bus slots, to pavement, to station hall roof, to office building marking the place where all these streams come together, be a fluid continuum. If the result realizes the architects’ visions, it will be a breathtaking paean to human movement.


Arnhem Station Courtesy: UN Studio


Arnhem Station Courtesy: UN Studio


I am also hopeful for the station at the smaller town of Breda, designed by the underappreciated Koen van Velsen. In contrast to the other stations, it is an essay in volumes, resting lightly on square columns and open to the city around the platforms.  In its reduction, it will have a luminous quality and a clarity some of the more ambitious station designs might lack.


What is most important to me is that each of these stations will be a major new civic landmark, as well as a place to gather. They will give focus and identity to these cities, and make the services the citizens use together visible and enjoyable. That does not mean that they will be cathedrals: they will be as much shopping malls and fast food courts as they will be oases of rest between movement. Civic life is not pure anymore, and going on a train journey is a question of daily commuting (or should be in this country), not a great occasion. Marking your daily activities and the space you share with others in such a manner that you can feel and be connected to larger forces is an achievement the Dutch are building towards, and that we seem to have forgotten is possible.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.