In het blad Blauwe Kamer verscheen vorig jaar mijn recensie van Het Souterrain ofwel de Haagse Tramtunnel. Het artikel is zojuist opnieuw geplaatst in 'scape, the international magazine for Landscape Architecture and Urbanism.
The Hague: Underground well-being in 'tramtunnel'
The centre of The Hague had to wait a long time for Het Souterrain. Almost twelve years. The municipal council of The Hague had to swallow a cost-exceeding of one hundred per cent in order to solve problems like leakages. But the result is well worth the wait. Het Souterrain represents a perfect fusion of form, function and content. The underground extension of The Hague has now passed a crucial station on its way to the ‘layered city’ - the urban planning ideal of the designer of Het Souterrain, the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Down-to-earth city-dwellers ignore official titles and think up their own nicknames for the buildings in their city. The rather posh-sounding Het Souterrain was immediately rechristened the tram tunnel by the people in The Hague. Besides being hardly original, this name does no justice to the building, because the project contains not only the tunnel but it also has two tram stations, an underground car park and numerous facilities to make a short subterranean stay more pleasant.
Persistent leaks from an underground stream held up work for two whole years. The solution to this anticipated, but probably underestimated, problem cost the lion’s share of the budget exceedance of more than one hundred million euros, Because of the many years’ setback and the notion that underground tramways and car parks are, by definition, bare and unwelcoming, you might no longer expect it but now that Het Souterrain is in use it is a pleasant place to park and catch a tram.
In Koolhaas’ view, you can see Het Souterrain not only as part of the infrastructure but also as a building project. In addition to the pragmatic functionalism that Koolhaas is known for, an atmosphere of well being and safety has been aimed for. In the future, similar constructions must serve the city from ‘beneath’. Without these additions, the centrally located buildings would not be able to work. As early as the beginning of the nineties, Koolhaas was making pronunciations about a city centre in The Hague made up of layers. The Hague is wedged in between the sea, the Amsterdam-Rotterdam motorway and the surrounding urban areas and can only expand its centre upwards, in fact, and now also downwards. A central ring road should link a number of ma underground car parks, and there must be an under ground feeder road to supply office buildings and department stores.
Koolhaas is the name most closely associated with Het Souterrain project. To some extent this is correct. The typical Koolhaas solutions can be discerned every where. We see his ‘usual unconventionalities’ like crooked columns, contrasting use of material and easy stairways. The bare concrete and the exposed pipes and cables all reflect Koolhaas’ style. Everything is open, everything is transparent and everyone may see how it is made. For experts in the building trade such exhibitions of the forces of pressure and tensile strength must represent a feast of recognition.
But the project has not only Koolhaas’ signature on it. The design had been submitted by Koolhaas’ OMA office in the 1990s, and their colleague Rob HiIz had been involved in the project from the beginning. In 2000 he started his own bureau LAB-DA, and he supervised the execution of the project, in consultation with OMA.
Although, at first sight, Het Souterrain might look like ‘typical Koolhaas’, Hilz is simply no inferior imitator and he should be given all credit for the finishing touches, which determine this building’s strength of aesthetic attraction to a significant degree. Due to the delay caused by the water problems, HiIz was given extra time to consider improvements to the original design. He paid a great deal of attention to the atmosphere which the various materials can evoke and he has let them contrast with each other in a light-hearted way. He did not hide the rough concrete diaphragm walls along the platforms behind plastic sheets, but literally put them in the spotlight by illuminating them from below. The result is cavernous but without turning into fairy-tale kitsch. With the contrast created by the ‘warm’ hardwood floor on the platforms, the entire effect is almost cosy and this certainly contributes to the aura of safety underground.
Every opportunity has been taken to connect the height and breadth of the space physically and visually with other segments of the tunnel programme. Tram travellers can gaze at the sky above The Hague through the glass wails of the car park. There are no pillars in the garage so that it is impossible for unsavoury customers to surprise unsuspecting car owners. There are as few pillars as possible in the lower levels as well; this has been made possible by hanging up floors and stairs in the higher levels on steel tension members and by diagonally constructed pillars, which disappear in the walls lower down.
The subterranean bamboo plants with light sculpture, the permanent exhibition of archaeological finds and the possibility of changing graphic exhibitions are all refreshing ideas. The bamboo is in the centre of a small roundabout in the underground car park. The light sculpture above the bamboo is made up of 150 fluorescent tubes in three colours which create the illusion of daylight. At Grote Markt station there is a changing exhibition of posters in illuminated cases. These cases are hung on a rail and, if required, they can be shunted to a separate area where the posters can be replaced. The floor showcases in the platform of Grote Markt station are not really a novelty, but they are still amusing. The archaeological finds on display here were discovered during excavation.
Less stereotypical of OMA is Het Souterrain’s ease of use. Everything is focused on making the area as practical and as pleasant as possible for the user. This is in contrast with the tantalising nature of the Kunsthal in Rotterdam with its concealed entrance and ankle breaking stairs. Granted, there are lazy steps in Het Souterrain but this time they are so broad you can climb them without abnormal hops, steps and jumps. The Hague has finally found an architectural acquisition the city may be proud of. It is welcome to it although it is a somewhat bitter truth that this costly construction has no influence at all on the always inconsistent city silhouette of The Hague. Only one modest wrinkle in the pavement on Grote Marktstraat betrays the spot which has an underground tram stop below it.