Zwolle Train Station

Zwolle, Netherlands
Jeroen Eulderink, Arcadis
Plural mixed mosaics

Zwolle Train Station

A Dutch canyon

Antelope Canyon and the train station of Zwolle in the Netherlands may seem worlds apart. But for Jeroen Eulderink of Arcadis they aren’t. When he was commissioned to redesign the pedestrian concourse under the platforms and tracks of the Zwolle train station, the captivating canyon in Southwestern Arizona came to mind.

Just as Antelope Canyon carves its way through the desert sandstone, with light beaming in from above, the underpass carves its way through the Dutch clay, interspersed with large openings in the middle of each of the four platforms above, where daylight generously floods in. The underpass has a width of 17 metres and a height of 3.5 metres, but given its length of 120 metres, it is inevitably perceived as an elongated space, which makes Eulderink’s link with a canyon completely understandable. And by making it as bright as possible, he has transformed it into a welcoming space.
The canyon association conceived the idea to cover the walls with a horizontal band of small tiles from Agrob Buchtal, in white and two shades of grey, comparable to the stratification of layers of the Navajo Sandstone in the American desert.

The pedestrian tunnel is part of a larger transformation and expansion of the train station, which includes new canopies above the platforms, to accommodate the increased train traffic, particularly since the arrival in 2012 of the direct fast connection to Amsterdam. For this purpose, an additional platform was built, to serve the extra tracks. Right now, Zwolle is the second-largest railway hub of the Netherlands.
This added to the complexity of the building project, because all interventions had to be realised while this busy station remained in full use almost all the time. The first stage was digging out and constructing the tunnel itself under the existing tracks. A significant part of the tunnel is below groundwater level, which required both drainage and waterproofing. The most innovative, and daring, part of the building process was the actual construction of the large decks bearing the tracks. These four decks were first made on a building site right next to the station. Within a short period of interruption of all train traffic for nine days, the decks were transported through the tunnel to their final location. The concrete decks, with a weight varying between 1,000 and 1,400 tons, were wheeled in on huge, self-propelled transporters of the kind that are used to move large and heavy parts at shipyards

There is a great contrast between the extremely heavy lifting needed to build this tunnel and the outcome, which seems almost effortless. In this respect, it is hard to imagine a greater contrast between the scale and massiveness of the construction and the determining element of the tunnel’s architecture, a mosaic tile of just 2.5 by 2.5 centimetres which meticulously covers the full length of its walls, a testament to the skills of the tilers. The small mosaic adds a fine grain to this large-scale project. Eulderink appreciates the matte gloss of the tile’s finish and is enthusiastic about the colour range he could choose from, even though he opted for an almost complete absence of colour. The choice of ceramics was an obvious one for him. Given the heavy use of the tunnel, robustness and low maintenance were prerequisites.
The horizontal pattern in the mosaic is underlined by a continuous steel band that divides the walls into two zones, with the bustle of the train passengers below and above it a zone which contains the signage and travel information. In addition to this band, there is also a continuous horizontal light strip running along the walls of the tunnel which continues along the ceilings of underpasses and appears at the same height on the freestanding glass elevator shafts as well.

The tunnel begins and ends with stairs, escalators and elevators leading the travellers down into the canyon, which contains three sets of accesses to the different platforms. Above the tunnel, parts of the platforms are made of glass, allowing even more light in. Here the mosaic of horizontal bands continues in a perpendicular direction as well.

Thanks to the rounded corners, there is always a smooth transition between the different walls, which adds to the canyon effect, as if the walls were indeed stratified rocks that had been eroded by the flows passing along them.

Integrated in one wall is a more than five-metre-wide screen, projecting a site-specific video installation called Time Tunnel (2015). This video art work, shot in the tunnel itself, is a four-hour journey through time, made by Ram Katzir, Chaja Hertog and Nir Nadler, with the help of 500 amateur actors. It is part of their overarching art project, Portal, which connects the train station to the centre of Zwolle.

In between the staircases to the platforms, the tunnel has a custom-made ceiling system of steel coffers with integrated dynamic coloured light. This creates an alternating rhythm of spaces, higher and lower, and light conditions with daylight and artificial light. Aside from the yellow and blue that are part of the brand identity of the NS national railway company, the coloured light of the ceilings is the only exception in the otherwise deliberately subdued architecture. Given the peak-hour flurry that characterises train stations in general and large ones like Zwolle in particular, the decision to create an architecture of tranquillity has been a favourable one.