The Governmental Interior of Year was awarded to the most public place in Amsterdam: the metro

Amsterdam – The decision to select Rotterdam-based Group A’s renovation of Amsterdam’s Metro Oostlijn as the winning project for the Governmental Interior of the Year Frame award was unanimous.

Without pause, the four jury members agreed that it perfectly represented all that the award was really about: in their words, the 16-station project is truly public, intelligently done and remarkably good-looking considering the municipality’s budgetary constraints.

During the deliberation talks, Francine Houben of Mecanoo figured out how to best navigate her transportation back-and-forth from De Kromhouthal that day to ensure she’d be able to experience the line first-hand. Fellow Institutions jury member Alex de Rijke of dRMM called the transformation ‘turning a dinosaur into a delight.’ Gyula Öry of Cairn Real Estate enthusiastically explained to Marie Hesseldahl-Larsen, partner at 3XN, more about the urban context of project.

I told them about how one of the stops on Oostlijn – Wibautstraat [see title image and first image below] – is actually my home base. In the autumn, when the entrance on one side of the street was closed for construction, it was like a game of Frogger: people would run across the first two lanes, wait in the grassy centre divider, and then run again over the next two lanes. Little did I – and my neighbours – know how well worth the wait would be.

In a conversation with architects Maarten van Bremen and Maarten Lever from Group A, I learned that that positive reception was tenfold from fellow commuters, whether their journeys began at the line’s start at Amsterdam Centraal, or at its end in the southeast of the city.

As someone who’s not originally from the Netherlands, it’s especially interesting to think about how the history of the stations interplays with what you were able to do with the space. What was the municipality looking to address with the renovation?

MAARTEN VAN BREMEN: The redesign started initially in 2000 – they wanted to completely redo each separate station. But the budget was limited, and it was decided after three stations were completed that the remaining 16 would instead be renovated. First, we had to work on the general design and unification of the locations.

MAARTEN LEVER: Our vision was very much about reusing the brutalist architecture and giving it meaning. It’s important to point out that we had a team of advisors – the light designer, the structural engineer, the cost calculator and so on – under our supervision. This was motivated in part by the fact that the client felt the complexity of dealing with the technical differences in each station.

MB: Because we handled 16, we could go a lot further with testing anti-graffiti methods, vision lines, glass solutions, window frames – everything. We handled it quite thoroughly.

ML: We dealt with really large numbers. For example, I think we brought in three kilometres of wooden hand-railing, and nearly 400,000 tiles.

You had to use materiality very strategically in this project. How did you go about making the selections for some of the larger treatments?

MB: The floor is made from thick cement-bound conglomerate tiles, with natural stones in it. It looked dirty, and there were a lot of objects screwed to the floor. We wanted to move those objects and leave the floor as clear as possible. We also did a lot of resistance tests to make sure that people wouldn’t fall if it was slick from the rain.

ML: We chose ceramic tiles for the walls to uniquely contrast with the cleaned, coated concrete walls; the glazing treatment gives a sudden burst of colour. Instead of using panels, we wanted the focus to be on the concrete, especially to give visual priority to other elements that we wanted to stand out more.

MB: The ceilings were sunken and low, because they were originally designed in a caisson style [a construction technique that utilises sunken panels in an otherwise flat ceiling] in the 70s. We found that a black ceiling would give the illusion of depth, and thus height.

One of the aspects of this project that the jury celebrated most was how user-friendly the stations are. What kind of differences have you noticed in the way people interact with the space post-renovation?

MB: The positive effect of natural light inside the metro is enormous. Even almost halfway in the station, you can still see it peek in. The transparency of the elevator shafts now is also really well received: before, people didn’t dare to take the lift – they were claustrophobic and smelled horrible, like urine. Now they’re open and well-lit.

ML: The stations are now designed in a way that the commuting experience is natural: people just use it, almost as if it’s always been that way. We see this as a compliment.

You can always make aesthetical choices while working in the technical realm

As two Dutch architects, do you think that your relationship with Amsterdam informed your creative process during this project?

ML: I was born in the week that the metro was first opened. [Laughs]

MB: He still has piles of the old articles that came out around his birth. [Laughs] We, for a time towards the end of the project, had part of the office in Amsterdam. But we just wanted to do it really well, it didn’t matter where it was – it was almost 10 years of our lives.

What do you think other architects and designers working on institutional projects should be most attentive to?

MB: It all has to do with keeping the user in mind. It was quite a technical project – there was not even money reserved for the aesthetic or artistic part of this project. But you can always make aesthetical choices while working in the technical realm, whether it’s simply choosing a colour or using three bolts over 10. These choices helped us give identity to each individual station.

ML: One of the other things that I hope architects can keep doing is to invest a lot of time in projects and see them from the very start to the finish.

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