Plastic Fantastic (The Amazing Whale Jaw, Hoofddorp, Netherlands)

“I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.” See 0:53 of this:

It’s taken goodness knows how long, but finally I’ve found an opportunity to work popular BBC TV series Doctor Who into this blog. The above quote is from the Seventh Doctor, a time travelling, universe-saving, multi-regenerating, hero. The Doctor is someone who has saved the entire universe on more than one occasion. If he has such a poor opinion of bus stations, things must be really bad.

In reality, the Doctor’s stance reflects the fact that the series is written by British writers, and many Britons have long held a negative opinion of bus travel (it’s changing, thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking UK transport operators, but it’s a long slog) and bus stations in particular. The truth is rather more complicated.

The thing about British bus stations is that they tend to lie at the extremes of quality. They are either very, very bad, or very, very good. Rare is the bus station that is acceptable but unremarkable. The trouble is, there are rather more bad bus stations in the UK than good ones. If more Britons had experience of mainland European bus travel, where high quality facilities and operations are more common, they might not be quite so jaundiced.

This week’s transport beauty can be found in the Netherlands, enhancing its urban environment no end. It is a building of such extraordinary audacity that no British citizen, if dropped there unbriefed, would expect it to be a bus station. But that’s exactly what it is.

The Amazing Whale Jaw, Saarne Hospital, Hoofddorp, Netherlands. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Amazing Whale Jaw, Spaarne Hospital, Hoofddorp, Netherlands. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This is Hoofddorp, Spaarne Hospital (low level) bus stops. The building is better known, not least by architecture practice NIO Architects, which designed it, as The Amazing Whale Jaw.

Funnily enough, that’s essentially what it looks like (in form, if not in colour), and it’s most definitely amazing. What a whale jaw has to do with bus transport I wouldn’t care to suppose, except that when you think about it, large square buildings don’t have anything particular to do with buses either. We’ve just got used to them as the conventional bus station. If bus stations had always been whale jaw-shaped, The Amazing Whale Jaw wouldn’t seem nearly as amazing as it does. It is as though a giant space whale (also as seen in Doctor Who, and not unfamiliar to readers of Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) has landed in the middle of the Netherlands’ bus network. You don’t get this degree of sheer cultural astonishment in public transport very often.

The Amazing Whale Jaw. The building has an unusual surface texture, which can be seen in this photo, due to its innovative construction materials and method. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The building has an unusual surface texture, which can be seen in this photo, due to its innovative construction materials and method. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

NIO is almost defiantly obtuse when it comes to explaining the building. The company says it can be viewed as a partly eroded boulder, a form which has allowed itself to be discovered, or an intuitive answer to an unfamiliar technology used in the production process, all depending on whether one is considering the building architecturally, philosophically or in terms of design.

Eschewing anything as conventional as steel or concrete for building materials, The Amazing Whale Jaw is constructed from glued-together blocks of polystyrene foam (which I think is the same stuff used to package small electrical appliances within their cardboard boxes), covered in a 6mm thick layer of polyester resin for strength and durability. NIO says conventional building materials would have been too expensive to construct a building of this organic design. According to the company, it is the world’s largest building made from synthetic materials (plastic, to you and me), a claim to fame I have no reason to doubt but am far from qualified to confirm. The building has been finished off with an orange coating with gold glitter mixed in which has anti-graffiti properties and because, well, why not? As NIO says, “every opinion and image can be projected onto the building and it has no answers of its own.” Thanks. I think.

The bus station contains a small office at one end, with an adjacent pair of toilets (how very civilised), next to a pod-like recess containing seating sheltered by an asymmetric draught screen (the last element installed after the photos in this article, but you can see it here). At the other end, where the structure swoops down to ground level, a moulded-in bench gives further seating, facing in the opposite direction.

Underneath the roof of The Amazing Whale Jaw. Both sets of seating can be seen. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Underneath the roof of The Amazing Whale Jaw. Both sets of seating can be seen. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world of public transport, which in an industry all too often reliant on standardised, engineering-led solutions, is quite a feat.

The Amazing Whale Jaw is an interchange between the conventional local bus network, and the Zuidtangent. The Zuidtangent is an extraordinary busway which slices its way between Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport, Haarlem, Hoofddrop and Nieuw-Vennep on some 30km of segregated, often elevated, bus-only roadway. It runs on a viaduct at Spaarne Hospital, and its pair of high level bus stops are the reason why those at The Amazing Whale Jaw have their “low level” designation (the high level stops can be seen in the background of the photo above).

NIO had a key role to play in the look of the Zuidtangent, and it’s to the Zuidtangent’s bus stops we’re going next week…

How to find The Amazing Whale Jaw

Click here to be taken to the beauty of transport‘s Map of Beauty

Further reading and bibliography

NIO Architects’ project page for The Amazing Whale Jaw, including drawings and photos, here

Poly Products (Netherlands-based constructor of The Amazing Whale Jaw) has a project page here

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