Lost Beauty #7: Fading Like a Flower (Zuidtangent bus shelters, North Holland, Netherlands)

The Zuidtangent is a big, bold, public transport scheme of the sort that the Netherlands does so well. A busway scheme, it comprises some 30km of roadway dedicated solely to buses. Along with other sections which run on conventional streets in town centres, it runs in an arc to the south and west of Amsterdam, linking Schiphol Airport, and the nearby settlements of Haarlem, Hoofddorp and Nieuw-Vennep.

It opened in 2002 and when it did, many of its bus stops looked quite extraordinary.

Bus shelter on the Zuitangent. By Robert [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Bus shelter at De Hoek on the Zuitangent. By Robert [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Backed by angled glass walls, featuring the stop name in huge lettering, the most notable feature of the stops was the coloured glass canopies above, supported on sinuous metal brackets. Like Guimard’s Paris Métro entrances a century or so earlier, metal and glass combined in floral form to mark out the Zuidtangent stations as aspirational gateways to public transport services.

Bus stop on the Zuidtangent. Note the patterned concrete floor. By Edwin van Geelen [CC By 2.0] via this flickr page
Bus stop on the Zuidtangent. Note the patterned concrete floor. By Edwin van Geelen [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Much of the Zuidtangent’s look was the work of Netherlands-based architecture practice NIO Architects, which also produced the orange eye-opener which is The Amazing Whale Jaw bus station at Spaarne Hospital (which we looked at last week). The company worked on the extensive elevated sections of busway (which speed up buses by avoiding the need for them to cross other roads at the same level), smoothing off what would otherwise have been flat edges, and giving the supporting pillars an angled design which NIO describes as “musclemen made of self-condensing concrete”. It’s that sort of company, as you’ll remember from their comments on The Amazing Whale Jaw.

When it came to the Zuidtangent’s bus shelters, NIO was keen to do something different from the norm which applies to the Netherlands, and indeed to most bus stops the world over. Such standard facilities it described as, “minimal bus shelters: one small plastic bench and standard 30 by 30 paving stones. If you want to be polite you could call it ‘rational’ or Calvinistic, but actually it is simply poor. No wonder no one takes the bus with pleasure.” Indeed.

Its solution for the 14 flagship stops on the Zuidtangent was its floral glass canopies, and plant-inspired steelwork forms. NIO named the project “Flower Power”. On the ground, the concrete was polished, and patterned in black and white. In fact all the infrastructure at the bus shelters was monochrome, except for the glass roofs, which further enhanced the visual impact of the latter. Lighting and real-time information displays were built into the central beams supporting the glass canopies.

The orange roof of this shelter suggests it is a stop at Spaarne Hospital. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The orange glass of this shelter suggests it is at Spaarne Hospital. By Alena Hanzlová (original print) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Each stop had glass of a different colour. To match the colouring of The Amazing Whale Jaw, the shelters at Hoofddorp Spaarne Hospital, for instance, had roofs made of orange glass.

It is the manifesto of this blog (as regular readers will know, or by now have been bored senseless by) that passenger transport infrastructure should not only do its job effectively but should also look attractive. It should do its job effectively because that’s its core purpose. But if passenger transport operators think that doing that core job is enough, and can excuse wretched and miserable infrastructure, they really ought to think again. This blog exists in part to show that when operators, designers and architects work together effectively, public transport infrastructure can do more than just the core job. It can make public transport a stylish, appealing and attractive alternative to car travel, rather than a distress purchase for those with no other choice.

The trouble with NIO’s Zuidtangent stops is that they went too far the other way. In succesfully making the stops visually attractive, and lending an aspirational quality to the bus service which used them, the basic job of reliably providing shelter for passengers got overlooked. The flower petal roofs were at a high level, and the angled glass walls behind left plenty of gap between the two. On a windy day on a viaduct, such an arrangement would have provided only a limited degree of shelter. Not only that, but the glass roofs themselves apparently proved unable to withstand stormy weather, and after some of them blew off, the rest were removed on safety grounds (the story is recounted here).

Like flowers, the Zuidtangent’s first bus shelters blossomed, then withered and died; their dead petals blowing away on the winter winds. As a result, it is more common to find pictures of the Zuidtangent stops looking like this…

Beukenhorst bus stop on the Zuidtangent. By Erica de Jong [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Beukenhorst bus stop on the Zuidtangent. By Shirley de Jong [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

…than intact and complete. The coloured flower-petal roofs have gone, leaving only metal stalks behind. Bereft of what they were designed to support, the curving black structures took on the appearance of skeletons of long-vanished sea monsters rather than the stems and stalks of flowers which have gone to seed. It wasn’t exactly the image a modern and attractive public transport system should be projecting, and before long something had to be done.

By 2011, the Zuidtangent was absorbed into the more general R-net local bus network, and the Zuidtangent’s buses lost their route specific branding. The opportunity was taken to replace the NIO shelters on the Zuidtangent with a standardised product designed for wider R-net use as well. The red and grey shelters were designed by FromAtoB Public Design (a more adventurous design from De Werff Architectur was rejected; find it under the “All Projects” tab here).

De Hoek bus stop on the Zuidtangent (again; it's an  interesting comparison with the earlier photo of the same stop). By Alexander Meijer [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
De Hoek bus stop on the Zuidtangent (again; it’s an interesting comparison with the earlier photo of the same stop). By Alexander Meijer [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

They’re a smart enough product, with clever LED lighting providing a low energy, vandal resistant illumination scheme at night. Tellingly, Philips Lighting (which worked with local partner Overhuys Verlichting on the lighting solution) noted (here) that, “Unlike the original waiting areas, the new stops provide excellent shelter.”

But they’re not vastly different from a standard bus shelter, and they certainly don’t have the exciting, aspirational qualities of the shelters they have replaced. They undoubtedly provide greater protection from inclement weather than the initial shelters, but they do it in a rather pedestrian way.

The Zuidtangent’s shelters have swung from attractive-but-dysfunctional to effective-but-dull. Is it really so hard to design a bus shelter which is stylish, appealing and functional? It’s hard to think of a reason why (apart from dearth of ambition, of course, which I suspect is the real problem), but the rarity of such products leaves it as one of the bus industry’s great unsolved design challenges.

further reading and bibliography

NIO Architects’ website has a project page on Flower Power (here), with a gallery of photos

Everything linked to in the text above…

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