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Bijlmer Station, Amsterdam by Grimshaw Architects

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Grimshaw’s Bijlmer Station brings both High-Tech and humane touches to a gentrifying neighbourhood, writes Jaffer Kolb

When Princess Máxima of the Netherlands opened Bijlmer Station last year, the escalators slowed as she descended from the platform to the ground-floor entrance hall amid the grand High-Tech gestures and expansive timber soffit of Grimshaw and Dutch firm Arcadis Architects’ recent project. A steel band played, singing rang through the building and a crowd nearing 20,000 cheered. It was all too appropriate that the Argentinian-born princess, known for her work integrating immigrants into Holland, would be there for the event, and that her entrance would be fittingly…multicultural.

Bijlmer is a neighbourhood to the south-east of Amsterdam’s centre. Planned in the 1960s, the area features expansive, low-density housing estates situated mostly to the east of the railway tracks that connect the area to the city centre to the north and Utrecht to the south. When the neighbourhood was conceived the plan featured a two-tiered circulation infrastructure, with roads and rails supported by viaducts and pedestrian and cycle pathways kept to the ground. Photographs from 1972 show that while housing was under construction, little else existed in the area; it was very much the planner’s flat featureless plane.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the Dutch government began housing Amsterdam’s growing number of immigrants in affordable housing in Bijlmer and the crime rate soon rose, giving the area a certain reputation and a high level of diversity. In 1996, the Amsterdam Arena, the 50,000-capacity home of Ajax football club, opened, bringing a high volume of visitors during games and events. The stadium is on the west side of the tracks, with the majority of housing to the east. The existing train station, a boxy, utilitarian concrete structure made of the generic kit of parts of all stations along the metro line from Amsterdam, connected the two sides through an 8m-wide tunnel. From pictures, it looks an exercise in bad space-management - you can almost hear the muggings taking place in the dimly lit, narrow corridor under the station.

With the stadium under construction, the City of Amsterdam saw an opportunity. It commissioned a masterplan by Pi de Bruijn of Amsterdam-based de Architekten Cie., the same architect responsible for the design of the enormous adjacent office building completed in the 1980s. De Bruijn designed a 70m-wide boulevard that began at the court created by his building and cuts under the railway station and up to meet the stadium, retail, and office space on the other side.

‘This would never happen in the UK,’ Grimshaw partner Neven Sidor says. ‘There were two clients: the city wanted a better connection that would help the community while ProRail [the Dutch government organisation in charge of rail infrastructure] wanted six new rail and two metro tracks in the station.’ The station would thus mediate two distinct areas of the neighbourhood to create a more cohesive pedestrian system.

When the station was first conceived, ProRail planned to use Amersfoort-based firm Arcadis Architects, with whom they had worked in the past. ‘When the city realised the budget and projected scale of the project [which is designed to host up to 60,000 passengers per day], they decided they wanted an international architect attached,’ says Sidor. Grimshaw was selected through an interview process, with the condition that they would work as equal partners with Arcadis. All decisions made by either firm would be subject to approval by the other. ‘It actually worked quite well and, believe it or not, out of the group there was no alpha male so there were few problems,’ Sidor continues.

Early on, the team decided that the station would work with the axis of the boulevard, which cut diagonally across the north-south line of the rail. The station is based on a diagonal matrix of columns on the ground floor, and spans over the 70m-wide boulevard. The choice is successful, and the station neatly and logically fits the plan - working with rather than against it.

From the exterior, the building is dominated by Grimshaw’s usual glass and steel.Long louvres flank the sides of the building and control wind swelling. ‘Without the louvres, it also looks somewhat naked,’ says Arcadis project manager Jan Schouten. Additionally and unsurprisingly, large structural elements with impressive girths and spans comprise the majority of the decoration here. The main entrance is demarcated by the faultline created where the two parts of the roof overlap. ‘In most stations you have a station hall,’ says Schouten, ‘but here we designed around the boulevard. We needed something to signal the entrance, so we created a break in the roof.’ It’s a subtle move that seems to work.

Two structural systems support the building. The concrete columns and viaducts (pictured right) hold the eight rails and five platforms while the roof is supported by a steel structure. Because the station had to remain operational throughout construction, phasing was paramount, particularly as the client and the designers agreed that the platforms were to be lifted up 2m in order to maximise light and space in the circulation area and boulevard below.

For the concrete structure, the designers first opted for a system of paired columns connected by beams, arranged in a similar matrix and cast in situ. Given the matrix, there were a number of problems that would require individual solutions - the buses that serve the station, for example, didn’t have enough room to turn at the drop-off point, which would have required rearranging the columns in that area.

According to Sidor, a ‘eureka moment’ came about when one of the team suggested that instead of two columns, there could be one larger column capped with a concrete saddle to direct loads downward. While tight in places, it worked within the proposed matrix without any problems thanks to the smaller floor area required, and could be precast and erected on site.

While when approaching the station, your eye is drawn to the immense glass and steel structure of the exterior envelope, the predominance of concrete is immediately felt in the building’s undercroft, where you walk through and along the boulevard, turning, if you’re a passenger, towards a large glazed windscreen demarcating the station’s entrance. The columns are large and covered in mosaic tiles to prevent graffiti. The palette of the lower level is warm, and the glazing on the roof filters down a generous amount of daylight to the lower floor. While the boulevard is thus ‘under’ the station, the high ceilings, open air, and light mitigate any potential oppressiveness.

The station comprises five main platforms. Large holes punched out between each bring light to the interior of the ground floor and each is served by its own escalator. In section, the roof is a series of spines supporting upwards-angled ribs that, in turn, support the glazing and timber soffits. The timber panels reach up towards one another, creating the impression of a pitched roof with an open-air break in the middle. The spines, which the architects call the booms, are anchored to the ground floor on the south end of the building by large moment connections (see left) that lock the structure along the long (north-south) axis.

Moving north, each boom is supported by a series of angled A-frame columns on flexible pins that accommodate small degrees of longitudinal movement caused by thermal expansion and contraction of the boom. These A-frames extend through the gaps between the platforms. Though rather clumsy (they look like giant compasses), they are the most obvious expression of the Grimshaw touch.

Otherwise, the High-Tech is perfectly at home in a railway station, and the large, exposed structural, grey-painted elements work well in overshadowing the innumerable bits and bobs that have been installed by ProRail. ‘You do your best to tally up all the small things that might go into a station like this,’ says Sidor, looking rather disappointedly at a thin, hanging rectangular speaker, ‘But in the end there’s always more.’

The roof’s glass panels form a secondary grid to the matrix of concrete columns below. Where the columns form a series of parallelograms, these panels are all at right angles, which the client chose to save money as the glass wouldn’t have to be custom cut. This choice, out of the hands of the architects, does create a visual shift in how the space is perceived. From below, the angling of the building to match the boulevard is quite clear.
In addition to the exposed structure, the star of the station is the Oregon pine soffits. Timber is a rarity in railway stations, particularly of this size, and here it succeeds in balancing the High-Tech, glass-and-steel monotony that could otherwise make this project a rather predictable product of its type.

The platforms’ cutouts ensure that the timber is visible from the lower level, which was important to the architects in terms of one of their basic design strategies. ‘The gaps in the platforms mean that wherever you are in the station, you can be observed from many places, which means you feel safer. Seeing the timber adds to that - it’s a warm material that you don’t expect,’ describes Sidor. The importance of creating a secure environment emerged from the failings of the last station, and is one that, at least during my visit, seems to have been resolved quite successfully.

The promenade through the station, which could easily have been botched, is light, spacious, and feels safe. The building itself balances the High-Tech features typical of its designers with material warmth from the tiles and timber. It’s a station I’d get off at just to step outside and look around, which is exactly the effect it should have. Hopefully the surrounding neighbourhood is ready for the likely onslaught of gentrification that will likely soon follow.

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