Saturday, July 26, 2008

Amsterdam Central Station - The Netherlands

Amsterdam Central Station is in fact geographically central in the city. Although it conformed to the general pattern of many metropolitan railroad stations before and after, it was an architectural and engineering achievement in that it was built on three artificial islands in the River IJ, supported by no fewer than 26,000 timber piles driven into the soft river bottom. That was a feat perhaps remarkable to the rest of the world but quite commonplace to the Dutch, who for centuries had coped with too much water and too little land.

Economic activity in Amsterdam revived with the railroads in the second half of the nineteenth century. New shipyards and docks were built. Extravagant public buildings such as P. J. H. Cuypers’s National Museum (1876–1915) and H. P. Berlage’s famous Stock Exchange (1884–1903) celebrated both the financial boom and awakening nationalism. In 1876 Cuypers and A. L. van Gendt were commissioned to design the Amsterdam Central Station. It was the first time that such work had been trusted to an architect rather than to engineers, a decision taken because the building would hold an important place in the nation’s image. Indeed, the brief jingoistically demanded that it should be in the Oud-Hollandsche (Old Dutch) style.

That qualification presented little difficulty to Cuypers, who had developed a personal historical-revivalist manner based on late Gothic and early Renaissance forms and ideas. His abundantly decorated National Museum was already under construction. Eclectically drawing on a wide variety of styles, it did not readily expose his rationalist architectural philosophy, gleaned from E. E. Viollet-le-Duc’s theories. Cuypers wanted to restore the crafts to a place of honor and insisted on the honest application of traditional materials. He was responsible for the appearance of the station; van Gendt, thoroughly experienced as mechanical engineer for the railroad, would take care of constructional aspects.

Work commenced in 1882. The station was built on the artificial islands in the Open Havenfront of Amsterdam’s original harbor, which had been cut off from the River IJ by the railroad. Special engineering skill was needed to create a solid foundation for the massive building and the rolling loads imposed by trains. As noted, 26,000 timber piles support the structure. The four-story station building, of red brick with stone dressings, is unmistakably Dutch. It is 1,020 feet (312 meters) long and 100 feet (30.6 meters) deep. On the axis of Damrak—the main street leading to the dam in the downtown area—a central pavilion flanked with clock towers houses the main entrance to the concourse. Its facade is resplendent with ornament: the clock faces; the arms of those European cities to which the railroad gave access; and an assortment of allegorical relief sculptures wherever they could fit, aptly representing such themes as “Steam,” “Cooperation,” and “Progress.” Convinced that the building process needed the collaboration of all the arts, Cuypers sought the artistic advice and skill of others, especially J. A. Alberdingk Thijm and V. de Steurs, who had worked on the National Museum.
Late in 1884 the architect produced two sketches for the platform roof; they have been characterized as “unassuming.” But that part of the design was not in his contract, and the structure—anything but unassuming—was designed by the railroad’s own civil engineer, L. J. Eijmer. Carried on a frame of fifty semicircular, open-web trusses of wrought iron, spanning 150 feet (49 meters), the original station shed covered about 3.75 acres (1.5 hectares). During construction, problems arose over anchoring the arches, no doubt due to the foundation soil, but rejecting a suggestion to build several smaller, lighter roofs, it was resolved to proceed with the monumental design “on a scale that could compare with that of the great examples abroad.” Cuypers designed the decorative elements of the rafters and the glazed gable end. The roof was completed in October 1889. In 1922, to cover new platforms, another similar arch was added beside the IJ.

The final phase of construction was the King’s Pavilion at the station’s eastern end in 1889—in the event, an ironic title, since the kingdom of the Netherlands was to be ruled only by queens for more than a century. Coaches could be driven inside, where a stair led to the royal waiting room, all in Cuypers’s individualistic neo-Gothic style and enriched with a color scheme by the Austrian G. Sturm and executed by G. H. Heinen. The room was restored in 1995.

The building of Amsterdam Central Station, “a palace for the traveler,” clearly demonstrates two issues that confronted architects and engineers late in the nineteenth century. First, after sixty years of building railway stations, they were no closer to finding an esthetic that suited the building type, fitted the new materials and technology, and removed the unnecessary tension between utility and beauty. Second, and related to the first, the nature of architectural practice was changing as increased knowledge called for specialization and the eventual replacement of the omniscient, not to say omnipotent, architect by a design team: architect, yes, but also mechanical engineer, structural engineer, interior designer, and consultant artist. That idea would not be enunciated until Walter Gropius wrote the Bauhaus manifesto in 1919.

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