Leidsche Rijn Centrum, Utrecht, Netherlands
Jo Coenen Architects & Urbanists and Lodewijk Baljon

A new city centre is being built next to Utrecht’s historic one. Leidsche Rijn Centre (LRC), as it will be called, is circa 65 ha. located on the eastern border of Leidsche Rijn, next to the Amsterdam-Rhine-Canal. This organic growth of the city would have been impossible if, in 1995 the Dutch government had not decided to place Leidsche Rijn’s North-South main road (and part of the A2 motorway) in a large tunnel. It was a risky decision to make on one of the Netherlands’ most prominent North-South, East-West infrastructural nodes. And as a result, the new centre will create an important link between the existing city, new housing estates (100.000 inhabitants) west of the A2 highway and Amsterdam-Rhine-Canal to the east.

The A2 motorway and a regional route have been covered with a concrete construction, resulting in a height difference of 9 metres, very exceptional for Dutch topography. The transition between original street level, and the top of the tunnel is mostly formed by gradually sloping streets. At other points, contrast creates special places. Parking and an unique loading dock for trucks to provide to the shops underground have been placed under this raised street level in order to give space to pedestrians, bicycles and public transport above ground. Trees grow on a meter of sand on top of this construction.

One of the ambitions of the masterplan can be found in its pronounced urban character, its basis established in the form of a grid pattern. The urban character is expressed in relatively high, dense building development, the centre surrounded by landscaped, clearly delineated zones such as boulevards and parks which clarify its identity and recognisability. Three aspects make LRC unique: its central location, its 9 metre difference in height and the great diversity of functions (lively, public plinth with shops, restaurants and cultural functions like library, cinema, hotel, cultural venues, community centres, schools, mixed with housing (about 3000) and offices).

The structure of the town centre builds on the tradition of the Western European city’s; a public area with five-to-seven-storey-high buildings and a rich and extensive network of public spaces with alternating atmospheres and experiences, well connected through public transport (train, busses) and bicycle lanes. The urban tissue encourages street life and pedestrian circulation. The squares, streets and parks differ in dimensions, layout, architectural characteristics and intended use, e.g. the ‘Town Square’, the ‘Towngardens’ (with historical farm), the ‘Boulevard’ with generous shopping-arcades on both sides and the ‘Singel’ with water.

In the façades and architecture of the building blocks and urban entities, cohesion is achieved by carefully employing uniformity or diversity in rhythm, articulation, colour, compartmentalisation and scale. Façades are characterised by massive high (natural stone) plinths, enriched with ornamentation in the form of typical Dutch brick tiling and tectonics to create a restrained yet diverse appearance. The public space is defined by very high quality materialisation and enriched with elements like benches, bicycle parking, trees and fountains supporting the use and potential of the different public spaces.

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