As far as public spaces go, pedestrian underpasses don't have a stellar reputation. What in theory is a convenient passageway under highways or buildings can quickly become a dark and crime-ridden trash tunnel if not thoughtfully designed or properly maintained. All of which has led some architects and urban planners to write off public-use underpasses all together.
Leave it to the Dutch, then, to prove that pedestrian underpasses can still be a good addition to a city landscape when done right. In Amsterdam, architects Benthem Crouwel just finished up construction on the Cuyperspassage, a dual cycling and pedestrian tunnel that connects the city with the IJ-river. Running underneath the Amsterdam Central Station, the 360-foot-long underpass is well-lit, noise-proof, and features an enormous tile mural designed by the renowned Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom.
The secret, suggests lead architect Joost Vos, is to design for safety, convenience and longevity. The firm split the passage into two parts: a fast lane for cyclists and a slow lane for walkers, the latter of which is elevated about a foot from the street. On the cycling side, walls made of steel grating make it harder to litter or paste up posters, while a layer of asphalt underneath the grate absorbs the sound. A string of LED lights overhead keep the tunnel well-lit and safe. Rounded corners connecting the walls and ceiling keep the tunnel easy to clean and maintain (as opposed to those pesky, dirt-accumulating sharp corners).
The pedestrian side, on the other hand, is all about smooth surfaces and an excellent view. The curved wall is clad with nearly 80,000 Delft Blue tiles, a Dutch specialty, depicting Boom's interpretation of a 17th century painting by Rotterdam painter Cornelis Bouwmeester (the original of which can be seen at the Rijksmuseum). Best known for her inventive book designs—many of which involve 3-D or multi-sensory elements—Boom took the historic seascape painting and made it distinctly her own. The tiled mural starts out detailed and very graphic, then dissolves into a more abstract image, painted in a darker blue, as the tunnel approaches the water.
As pleasant as it is to look at while strolling down the pedestrian passageway, even the artwork has a practical perk: it's also meant to discourage people from tagging the walls with graffiti. When it comes to designing underpasses—or entire cities, for that matter—there's a lot to be learned from the Dutch.