Here I was, back where I started, back at Zuid, the beginning and end of the M52. The underground line surfaced and terminated on an embankment beneath those same fractured skyscrapers. The station only came into existence in 1978 when a new southerly line was built across Amsterdam. Wonderful though Centraal is, its position between the city and the sea meant there wasn't much room for expansion, and super-fast trains would have to trek through the suburbs to get there. Zuid meant that trains could shoot across and through and you could easily change to the Metro to get you into town.
Tuesday, 1 August 2023
The Future's Bright - The Future's Orange
It is, regretfully, not a looker. In the 1970s "integrated transport" meant "wedge the station in the middle of a motorway". The A10 splits either side of the platforms, lanes going in each direction while you totter above them; it feels distancing, like you're away from the town. Worse, when you head down and through the ticket gates, you're in a dark underpass.
This is all going to change. You might be sitting there, wondering how you improve a station in such a restricted position. Perhaps a new ticket office over the top? A glass roof? Some trees? The Dutch are far more ambitious. They have a scheme called Amsterdam ZuidAs, which makes pretty much every infrastructure in the UK over the past twenty years look pathetic.
The Zuidasdok Project will create more space for Amsterdam Zuid by putting the entire motorway in tunnels. Three lanes of traffic in each direction will be pushed into tunnels over three kilometres long - complete with exits for the S108 and S109 trunk roads - and the cars will simply disappear from sight. Zuid's tracks and platforms will then be rationalised and expanded. There will be a new entrance from Benjamin Brittenstraat. They can put glass roofs in to allow light into that dark space underneath. The trams and buses will be redirected to stop right outside, in new, tree lined areas surrounding the station. It will, in short, be bloody amazing. It'll take a while - the northern tunnel isn't projected to open until 2035, and obviously they can't do anything on the surface until it's gone.
It's hard not to look at this brilliant, ambitious scheme from this side of the North Sea and feel intense envy. My journeys around the West Midlands have taken me under a lot of motorways. Gigantic viaducts slice up the city into sections, fractures that divide districts, noise and pollution and constant movement over your head. Imagine having the ambition to put some of those in tunnels. Just a couple of miles here and there. Buried beneath the ground and replaced with smaller boulevards for local traffic. Parkland. Greenery. Somewhere to breathe and connect neighbourhoods. You could perhaps - and I'm thinking really ambitiously now - lay down some tracks on the top and run a tramway so that people also have access to good public transport.
It's science fiction of course because the UK doesn't do that kind of thing. You try and build a high speed railway and it takes twenty years to get a spade in the ground and even as it's being built it gets bits lopped of it. Investing money in making places better, well, that's awful isn't it? Where's the profit? Where's the value for money in simply making life better for people? The only way this kind of scheme would happen in Britain would be if they could work out a way to do it in London and then build a load of hideously overpriced apartments on the top that they could flog to Russian oligarchs.
Of course, I didn't know all this while I was in the Netherlands. All I saw was a slightly grubby station surrounded by some bright yellow hoardings with a lot of writing in Dutch. I made a mental note to look it up when I got back to England. I sort of wish I hadn't.
North of the station is the Zuidplein, a public space at the heart of Amsterdam's World Trade Center (sic). It's a Canary Wharf-esque plaza surrounded by fast lunch spots and shops office workers can buy essentials from - a Starbucks, an Albert Heijn, a Sissy-Boy. (The Dutch are tremendously good English speakers, but having a major clothing chain called Sissy-Boy makes me wonder if we should quietly take them to one side and explain some colloquials to them). It being a Sunday, most of them were closed. A rainbow decorated set of steps took you up to the buses and trams but I walked underneath to a raggedy green square of land where a woman rested her feet in the bubbling water feature.
The Zuidplein isn't just a space for perambulation - it's also the lid on an underground bicycle park with space for 620 ordinary bikes, 271 cargo bikes, and 400 public bikes for hire. I nipped down for a quick look and it was remarkable; storage everywhere you looked, clean and efficient, with a spot for repairs and accessed via travelators from the street. Parking is free for the first 24 hours.
Yes, I know.
Minervalaan was lined with elegant modern houses. White blocks with irregular fronts and subtle detailing. An electric charging point in every driveway and glass facing. Kevin McCloud would have been in raptures about all of them, and I was too. The only part that worried me was all those flat roofs. The Netherlands isn't much drier than the UK; surely you'd want something that would let the rain wash away? Perhaps I'm just sensitive because I am still arguing with a roofer about a bay window he was supposed to fix but which still leaks when the weather is bad. I'm at the point where I think all roofs should be angled for the sanity of their occupants.
I'd intended crossing the canal at the end of the street, but the bridge was closed for refurbishment, so instead I diverted onto the lawns that ran down to the water and followed the path to the Parnassusweg.
It couldn't have felt more Sunday morning. I was accompanied on the path by dog walkers and joggers. There was a calm silence in the air. I glanced up at a balcony and saw a woman leaning on her balustrade, a cigarette in her hand, smoking away the night before. A man unloaded his recycling - an awful lot of glass bottles - into one of the communal bins that pepper the street corners. They look like ordinary bins, but conceal deep underground reserves - meaning there's no need for large ugly wheely bins for the apartments.
It was quite, quite delightful. I loved every second of it. Imagine waking up to a view of the canal, curling up on your window seat, cradling a coffee. Having all these amenities and links a short walk away. I wondered how much it would cost to move here, to sell up and start all over again, then I remembered Brexit and the end of Freedom of Movement and once again, fuck you Leavers.
I was headed for a historic Amsterdam sight. Even though my interest in sport is actually in the minus figures, I do love a stadium. I'm not sure why. I think it boils down to me loving any large bit of infrastructure. The ultimate stadium is, of course, an Olympic Stadium, and Amsterdam hosted the games in 1928. They built a stadium in what is known as the Amsterdam School of architecture. This was a style that you can see throughout the city, and the Olympic Stadium brought it to the attention of international architects.
The Amsterdam School favours brick, used in intricate patterns and with curves and flights to form elegant forms. The Olympic Stadium is perhaps the largest and most prominent example of the style and, thanks to a restoration twenty years ago, it looks much as it did during the Games.
I wandered round the plaza that fronts the stadium, the only person there. For many years it was used as a football stadium, with Ajax using it for international games; I thought back to the lovely quiet streets I'd just walked down and reconsidered whether I'd perhaps want to live here when an event was ongoing. It's now an athletics stadium once more.
The Amsterdam School spread across Europe in the 1930s and was particularly influential on Charles Holden, the architect of many London Tube stations; the likes of Arnos Grove and Cockfosters on the Piccadilly Line share their aesthetics with large expanses of red brick and clean lines. Unfortunately, one of the other countries that really took to the Amsterdam School was Germany, and for some reason the style fell out of favour with the rest of the world after they embraced it in the 1930s. Nazis ruin everything.
I returned to the main road and walked south for my next station. With the 52 completed, it was now time to take on another line. The M50 and M51 curl round the west of the city from Zuid, almost but not quite looping back to Centraal Station.
The blue was done. It was time for the green and orange.