All change: UNStudio’s Arnhem Central station


The final element in UNStudio’s new Arnhem Central station has now opened, completing a 20-year project that gives the Netherlands’ city an integrated transport hub...and some radical architecture. Herbert Wright toured the project with UNStudio’s Ben van Berkel.


Blueprint

Words by Herbert Wright

Away from the flat maritime provinces of the Netherlands there are some hills, like the ones just north of the Rhine-side city of Arnhem. Recently, some surprising new gently rolling topography has emerged in the town itself. Beneath two high-rises, a white, flowing structure undulates, sectioned on two sides by glass escarpments, through one of which thousands of people are passing every hour. This is Arnhem Central railway station, the Netherlands' ninth busiest and part of a multimode transport complex, with offices, all designed by Amsterdam-based UNStudio. In November, its final element was opened -- the curvy €37.5m Transfer Hall, defined by such an extraordinary surface structure that the engineering feats it required called on the skills of shipbuilders.

The central twist in the Terminal Hall required the skills of shipbuilders to construct and seamlessly connect into a single surface elements such as The Bridge ramp and the ceiling. Photo: Ronald Tilleman
The central twist in the Terminal Hall required the skills of shipbuilders to construct and seamlessly connect into single surface elements such as The Bridge ramp and the ceiling. Photo: Ronald Tilleman

Arnhem is in a key location, half-way between the economic powerhouses of the Randstad (the urban arc from Amsterdam to Rotterdam) and Germany's Ruhr conurbation. There was a 1954 concrete station building by Dutch Railways' architect HGJ Schelling, in a distinctive style influenced by Auguste Perret, with a barrel-vaulted entrance hall and 18m-high clock tower, and a circular satellite pavilion entrance on the other side of the tracks. But these and the old three-platform-island arrangement were inadequate for Arnhem's need to be a major hub. As long ago as 1987, Arnhem decided to replace it. In 1996, the city commissioned UNStudio -- founded in 1988 by partners Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos -- to masterplan the Arnhem Central area, with the station at its heart.

Ben van Berkel at Arnhem Central. Photo: Herbert Wright
Ben van Berkel at Arnhem Central. Photo: Herbert Wright

At the time, UNStudio's Möbius House was underway, exhibiting spatial ideas that would resonate with the Transfer Hall, which we will enter later. Van Berkel and Bos created a defining loop structure that derives from the Möbius strip (the one-sided continuous loop made by joining the ends of a twisting paper strip).

Cross-section through Arnhem Central
Cross-section through Arnhem Central

They had also just seen the completion of the iconic Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, a vast cable-stayed structure suspended from an inflected 139m-high tower. For that, UNStudio developed its Deep Planning approach, which involves studying user flow directions, transport modes, inter-connections, building typologies and social-political factors to produce a logical analysis of movements at a particular location.

Exploded view of Arnhem Central elements, including (top to bottom) roof; Transit Hall; platform access passage; underground bicycle park levels
Exploded view of Arnhem Central elements, including (top to bottom) roof; Transit Hall; platform access passage; underground bicycle park levels

This provided a powerful tool for infrastructure projects -- van Berkel notes that when he was studying at the Architectural Association in London, (from which he graduated in 1987 and where his tutor was Mohsen Mostafavi, now Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Design) 'my peers were paper architects, so I said, what are the tools?'. Applying Deep Planning to Arnhem Central enabled the generation of a plan that integrated the railway station, a bus station, a road tunnel, car park and office development.

Wooden surfacing of parts of the ceiling has an acoustic dampening effect. Photo: Frank Hanswijk
Wooden surfacing of parts of the ceiling has an acoustic dampening effect. Photo: Frank Hanswijk

All of the elements of this 'entrance to the town' were subsequently built to UNStudio's designs. First there was the 1,000-space car park and regional bus station. Straight lines define that design, notably in the 500m-long, sloping concrete V walls, which cut down through four levels to bring natural light deep into the structure and vent exhausts.

There is comparatively little way-finding signage in the Transit Hall, because the openness of the internal space gives clear sight lines. Photo: Hufton+Crow
There is comparatively little way-finding signage in the Transit Hall, because the openness of the internal space gives clear sight lines. Photo: Hufton+Crow

The Willems Tunnel, a road underpass, was dug to rationalise traffic flow adjacent to the station, and completed in 2002 -- its curving cross-section a hint of the fluid aesthetic to come. Two UNStudio-designed, horizontally banded, 17-storey office slabs (tempered by some colour and curve) were completed in 2005, access to them integrated into the new vehicular infrastructure below. Next would be the station itself, where UNStudio envisioned continuous surfaces defining the hub.

A great crescent skylight perforates the roof surface above the Transit Hall. Photo: Frank Hanswijk
A great crescent skylight perforates the roof surface above the Transit Hall. Photo: Frank Hanswijk

In the meantime, a key UNStudio work was the Mercedes-Benz Museum. This curving structure channelled the visitors' passage to spiral around a central atrium, like Wright's Guggenheim New York, but in Stuttgart there are two helical paths, not one. The same year it opened, 2006, a colourful temporary structure replaced Schelling's Arnhem station buildings. The first matter was to deal with the platforms, which gave limited cover -- van Berkel remembers that 'I was always standing in the rain'. The platform-island count was increased to four, and a wide passenger underpass opened in 2011 to access them, with wood-lined ceilings muting the commuting sounds.

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