Unlike the United States, Europe is investing in infrastructure. The latest example of this commitment to the future is an exaltation of a transport hub. The Rotterdam Central Station, designed by a team headed by Amsterdam-based architecture firm Benthem Crouwel restrains itself to two big moves: a shed over the platforms and a scissor of concrete vaulting over the waiting area and transfer point to local transportation. Everything else the designers did remains so simple or so invisible that it becomes clear that any station is really about these two conditions: waiting for the train (or plane, or bus), and arriving into a city or leaving it. The first needs a space of generosity and ease, the latter one of exuberance and excitement.
This is, of course, not anything new. The first generation of grand train stations, built in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, already sported this division between a shed filled with air, space, people, machinery, and a “headpiece” whose monumentality ennobled both the city it faced and the journey you were about to take. What Benthem Crouwel has done is to abstract and strengthen that tradition.
The platform shed consists of an expanse of glass set into shallow ridges and chevroned with fritted panes, resting on steel beams that span between columns splaying out into V-shapes. The scale and simplicity of the space, along with the image of columns that evoke either a human being with arms outstretched or trees reaching to the sky make this a space that exudes lightness and possibility. My favorite moment is when the columns span over the staircases down to the ground level concourse: They split apart into a V-shape at a right angle to the one soaring above you to make room for the people coming into and going from the space.
The main hall faces its square (landscaped by West 8) with its own V-shape: a cowl that cantilevers out into the space, its asymmetrical peak pointing towards downtown and then sloping down to the level of the mundane activities of shops and ticket counters sheltering inside. It also provides a pleasant place for smokers to congregate, which seems to be one of the largest demands for outdoor public spaces these days.
Inside, the roof fractures into a series of ridges that offer accented versions of the peaks above the platforms. It also supports the largest array of solar cells in Europe. Benthem Crouwel covered the inside ceiling with wood and paved the indoor plaza with a reddish stone, giving the space a sense of luxury uncommon in spaces of public transportation. In contrast to the march of columns on the platform, there are no supports here, only the roof seeming to float above banks of stores and offices.
The concourse connecting the two is reasonably (and somewhat disappointingly) bland, and the station’s other, north, façade is a true disappointment: a wall of glass faces the residential area that crowds right up to the tracks. While the concourse is just a place you move through, the façade remains there, its flat expanses standing in contrast to the elegance and profusion of detail of the houses it faces.
The Rotterdam Central Station sets a new standard for public transportation architecture. Able to handle not only over 100,000 passengers who pass through there every day today, but also a three-fold increase in that number, it makes room for and celebrates the movement that is so central to our life in a manner that is public, shared, and open—and not to mention exhilarating.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.