It could be suggested that this week’s piece of beautiful transport has something of an identity crisis. It is an example of a piece of transport infrastructure doing one job, but disguised as something else. Yet arguably, that is precisely its greatest strength. This week’s subject is the recent extension of Amsterdam Centraal railway station in the Netherlands, and despite external appearances it’s not actually a railway station at all, but a bus station.
Amsterdam Centraal railway station has two great trainsheds, and a smaller one linking them, dating from the late 19th Century. So far, so ordinary. But one of the things that the Netherlands is famous for is its highly integrated transport system. It is easy to make journeys involving more than one non-car transport mode, giving public transport as much chance as possible to compete with the car’s door-to-door offer. That means things like being able to get off a train and onto a hire-bike at a very large number of stations. It also means treating the bus and train networks as complementary, feeding each other, and providing ticketing products that make such movements possible. And that’s how Amsterdam Centraal has ended up with a fourth great trainshed roof, which serves buses rather than trains.
Architecture practice Benthem Crouwel has been retained since 1996 to develop a long-term masterplan for the whole Amsterdam Central site, of which the company’s bus station is just the biggest and most noticeable example, and this long-term involvement with the development of the site has allowed the creation of an exceptionally well-designed multi-modal transport interchange. Amongst other features are the construction of a new ticket hall, new pedestrian routes through the station complex, and the diversion of a road running along the quayside to a new tunnel, giving the quayside back to pedestrians and cyclists, and promoting easier interchange on and off ferries.
The jewel in Benthem Crouwel’s reconstructed crown, however, is the new bus station. It brings together all the buses, local and regional, arriving at the railway station – 100 per hour at the busiest times – in a single location rather than spread over various bus stops scattered around the local area as was previously the case.
Just like the great railway station next door, Amsterdam Centraal Busstation provides a lofty, well-lit grandeur to the operations below. The huge new barrel roof protects the bus station below, complementing the older railway station trainshed roofs without descending into pastiche. This is a bus station which aims for, and succeeds in attaining, the grandeur that is bestowed upon railway stations by their over-arching glass and steel roofs. There is the feeling in the bus station that the bus network of Amsterdam is reaching for something, making a statement about its place in the lives of the citizenry, just as early railway companies did when they built their own cathedrals of soaring glass and metal.
While the need not to compromise the existing architecture of Amsterdam Centraal has led to a roof similar in overall size and shape to the existing ones, it is nevertheless a much more modern structure in form and technique. Yet it also references older transport architecture too.
It’s a more streamlined structure than the railway station’s roofs. It doesn’t require the clerestories running along the top of railway station’s roofs, because there are no steam locomotives emitting clouds of smoke which need to escape from within the structure. Neither are there are there glass screens at either end. The riveted arched trusses which support the railway station’s roofs are replaced by equivalents which are less visually fussy in the bus station. The bus station is something a bit more minimalist, more in tune with today’s architectural tastes.
Although it’s not immediately obvious, the roof is asymmetric, touching down at a lower level on the north side, and in doing so protecting the quay where local ferries dock. The roof is made of 4,500 glass panels fitted onto the steel frame of the roof, each one between one and three metres square, and an inch thick. The panels are ‘cold curved’: bent on site to fit, in a procedure that sounds frankly terrifying and fraught with the risk that any panel might shatter. But it seems to have worked just fine.
A translucent red/orange pattern has been created by the application of coloured film to some of the glass panels. Up close and underneath the roof, the pattern seems almost abstract. From the outside, however, it’s very clear what it is: “Amsterdam” emblazoned in gigantic letters 22m tall.
The steel frame of the roof touches down to the ground on curved legs with open spaces between, in form rather like the late 1940s Newbury Park Bus Station in London. The gigantic namesign is a call back to something even older, the names of railway stations painted onto roofs in the early 20th Century, which provided navigational assistance to early aviators (see here).
Amsterdam Centraal Busstation also contains features which are absolutely of the moment. This, for instance, is one of the offices in the bus station, a cylindrical building supported on a glass box containing a staircase, and with a circular picture window at the end:
Unlike the railway station, where the railway tracks run in and out pretty much on the level, the greater ability of buses to handle gradients and tighter curves means that the roads in and out of the bus station swoop in and out more dramatically, and have been made an architectural feature in their own right.
Amsterdam Centraal Busstation is a staggering 365m long, which makes it bigger than the enormous Nils Ericsson bus station in Gothenburg, and bigger than the 170m-long Preston Bus Station and car park. It might even be bigger than the Kamppi bus station in Helsinki, which beat Preston to the title of biggest bus station in Europe¹, but the fact that the latter is underground and its layout is different makes it difficult to compare. But perhaps the most impressive thing about Amsterdam Centraal Busstation is the ease with which it has fitted in amongst the trains, ferries, taxis, pedestrians and cycles at Amsterdam Centraal, making the whole site a single seamless, cohesive, transport entity.
It’s not like arriving at (for instance) Birmingham’s shiny new New Street station, and discovering that the local bus station doesn’t really exist because the bus stops are dispersed around the city centre, and the coach station is half a mile away in Digbeth via a very wiggly walk. What it is like, is an experience common across much of the Netherlands’ public transport network; getting off a train and finding your bus network ready and waiting at the station exit, and often under some kind of shelter.
And before someone makes the point, yes, I know that you wouldn’t want the bus network of British towns like Guildford to be centred on its railway station, because it’s too far away from the commercial centre which is where the majority of bus passengers, who don’t want to catch a train that day, want to go. That, however, doesn’t excuse the many towns and cities where the station is right on the edge of the main shopping area, but getting off a train and finding a bus is a bit like doing a Where’s Wally book in real life.
What Amsterdam Centraal Busstation has done is to translate the easy and attractive intermodal interchange mindset of the Netherlands directly into a forceful physical presence, right in the middle of the capital. It’s not just a building; it’s a statement of intent about the way the Netherlands believes transport should operate.
Bibliography and Further Reading
¹ Historic England listing citation for Preston Bus Station, here