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The Alphen Bridge

In 1997, Alphen aan den Rijn’s city paper, Hart van Alphen, described the plans for refurbishing the Thorbeckeplein as follows: the square will undergo a facelift by planting comely plane-trees, the parking garage will be renovated and a lunch room will be constructed. And indeed, the included artist’s impression showed a square, basking in the sun and filled with people enjoying the shade of magnificent trees.
As so often, such an ideal Mediterranean image for the refurbishment of a Dutch piazza resulted in frustration. Six years onward, Alphen’s Arts Council writes: “At this moment the Thorbeckeplein is in fact in all respects a sorrow sight. This is due to the extremely mediocre quality of the surrounding architecture combined with its all-too heterogeneous aspect. The lunch room in the middle confounds the square’s identity. The renovation of (the neighbouring quarter) Hoge Zijde dramatically illustrates that refurbishment of this square is to be taken up with great energy.”
In 2003 Alphen aan den Rijn appeals to art for bettering the Thorbeckeplein. However, the way in which one normally deals with art in Dutch public space doesn’t leave much room for more than a colourful accent, or to put it differently, dressing up the destitution. In another six years, such art will certainly once again lead to the conclusion that a failure has been made and the Thorbeckeplein is as barren as before.
In order to actually answer the commissioner’s wish to make a square which will be a match to the Hoge Zijde, another artistic perspective is needed. The square will have to be structurally changed, not mended. I have therefore taken up the task to develop a vision on the square in which artistic, civic and urban planning aspects will naturally conjoin and reinforce each other.
The most remarkable urban element of Alphen is its Oude Rijn (Old Rhine). The first thing the Romans did when they settled on the site where Alphen now lies, was building a bridge across the river. A settlement remained at this site for hundreds of years. Since, Alphen has gradually changed from a village into a town on the Rhine and meanwhile can take its place among the many cities through which a river flows though the heart of town like an aorta.
Now that in our time the practical necessity of rivers or canals has become less evident for a city, in many cases the beauty of their natural genesis comes to the fore. Many cities are enchantingly beautiful because of the rivers which bisect them. Of course, the need for bridges requires that they fulfil a representative purpose, apart from their functionality. Who doesn’t know the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto Bridge in Venice, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, the Berlage Bridge in Amsterdam? Apart from being a showcase of technology, a beautiful bridge is capable of inspiring its urban environment and even the development of urban culture. Alphen aan den Rijn has all the requisites for gaining urban quality through building a remarkable bridge. In the light of the existing plans for building a new bridge, here lies a magnificent potential for playing multiple cards.
In order to achieve a good balance, a river should not separate a town, but present itself as its very heart. To achieve this, the Oude Rijn should play a more eminent representational role. A distinguished bridge grants the river more urban standing. The city’s aspect will change dramatically because of it. The Oude Rijn will become a natural axis for the city, which will gain cohesion and urban feel.
At the same time, a clever bridge can be of spectacular assistance in opening up Alphen’s so-called Lage Zijde, and therefore offer great advantages in terms of urban development. The earlier urban renovation on the Hoge Zijde clearly shows how important contact with the water is, of which there is hardly any mention at the Lage Zijde. There, the houses are placed with their backs to the river and private gardens make public access impossible.
My proposal is to accentuate this situation by building a bridge, which, radically cutting through this built situation, opens up the Thorbeckeplein. One could almost say: a bridge which relieves the Thorbeckeplein. Not a bridge from bank to bank, but a bridge which directly connects the Thorbeckeplein to the Hoge Zijde, at the other side of the river. The Thorbeckeplein, which is now only reachable by a detour, will be in direct contact with the other part of town, and acquire a full-grown centre function.
A grandiose bridge, which lands behind the lunchroom, turns an “in all respects sorrow sight” into an exciting square in many respects. Because of this bridge, illogical aspects of the square suddenly acquire logical functions, which will improve its form and have a harmonising effect on the whole. What used to be ugly, becomes beautiful. The lunchroom, which now hovers out of place on the square has been incorporated in the plan for the bridge and will, as if it was made for the place, appear crystal clear and robustly poised. The same goes for the architecture at the Thorbecke street. The monotony of this architecture seamlessly fits into the pragmatism of the bridge. The Thorbecke street, instead of vaguely ending in a deadlock, will become a distinct east-west passageway. The Thorbeckeplein will be reachable in a normal way. It won’t be felt like an urbanistically misplaced square, which has been made accessible at the expense of a lot of infrastructural jostle. With the advent of the bridge, this square will become the most radical place in town, and thereby give a strong impulse to the surrounding quarter of Lage Zijde.
A surreal bridge, which with busy traffic on the water will constantly greet the city, will grow to be an important urban element and acquire a reputation of its own. The Alphen Bridge thrills the mind because it is as self-evident as it is insane.

Source: Hans van Houwelingen, clarification design ‘De brug van Alphen’, 2003