Tunnel Vision: Traditional and Modern Materials Mingle in a Scenic Passageway

Sheila Kim Sheila Kim

There’s no dispute (at least, not by us) that the Netherlands is full of great design across the spectrum, from houses and infrastructure to utilitarian utensils and objects. So it comes as no surprise that something like a pedestrian tunnel in Amsterdam would read almost like a public artwork to those fortunate enough to pass through it. Such is Cuyperspassage at Amsterdam Centraal.

All photos © Jannes Linders

In working on the masterplan for the historic railway station, Benthem Crouwel Architects extensively renovated and expanded the station to encompass 861,100 square feet (80,000 square meters) and in the process inserted a number of tunnels that serve and give order to distinct functions. Among these functions, the striking Cuyperspassage is a covered pedestrian and bicycle path stretching 361 feet to connect the city center to the IJ waterfront.

At first glance, one might think that its split design exhibits identity crisis, but really it’s a smart and artistic approach to defining the functions of each side. (Anyone living in an urban environment with shared pedestrian and bike paths can probably attest to the frustration of walkers and joggers obliviously strolling in the bike lane or cyclists dangerously veering into the wrong side.) The slightly elevated side of the 33-foot-wide tunnel serves the pedestrians, presenting a well-lit, clean and safe environment clad in tiles from floor to ceiling, while the lower side sports a darker, slicker design of black sound-absorbing asphalt and steel grating for the cyclists. The raised edge of the pedestrian walkway is lined with LED lighting that both illuminates the bike lanes and further delineates the division between the two sides.

The centerpiece of the tunnel — and nod to traditional Dutch decoration — is the Delft Blue tile tableau cladding the pedestrian side. On the city end of the passageway, the tiles depict Cornelis Bouwmeester’s painting of the Warship Rotterdam and the Herring Fleet (with slight modifications), an illustration recreated by Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom. As the passerby traverses north toward the waterfront, leaving “old Amsterdam” for “new Amsterdam,” he or she witnesses the tableau gradually fading away into a sea of blue.

It’s said that ceramic company Royal Tichelaar Makkum spent a whopping five years making the tiles — 46,000 for the wall and 33,000 for the floor — for this project, but, looking at the final outcome, it was well worth the wait.