It has been a long wait, but Amsterdam finally has its modern art museum back. The Stedelijk Museum, which holds one of the world’s best collections of 20th-century art and has organized some of the most important exhibitions of the end of that century, just reopened its renovated, 19th-century structure, as well as new addition, designed by the firm of Benthem & Crouwel and nicknamed “the bathtub” because it looks like one.
I must admit I was skeptical when I saw the drawings for that new structure when it was first proposed almost 10 years ago. It seemed so radically different from the original building as well as from everything else around it that I wondered why it was there. Now that it is built, it works in a strange way. Partially that is because in its strangeness it takes its place among a confusion of sculpturelike buildings that have colonized the Museum Square of which the Stedelijk is the northwestern anchor. The bizarre addition to the Van Gogh Museum next door, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, a partially underground supermarket, and the hideous addition to the Concertgebouw across the street have created a jumble of disparate forms among which the bathtub, its smooth white forms curving up and out, sails with aplomb.
It is also light, displaying its roughly 50,000-square-foot mass without imposing it on you. As you move around, it always seem to slink away, soar up and out. It also helps that the complete ground floor is open, as the galleries above sit on four tapered columns, though the confusion of café, store, and entry could use some clarification. The space becomes not so much an extension of the square’s public life, as it is the kind of nexus of art-activated high-brow consumption that drives the heart of most art museums today, here spreading out under a soft, white ceiling.
What the bathtub actually contains is gallery spaces, which are perfectly fine in the manner that we have come to expect from well-designed, but generic art spaces today. They are flexible, well proportioned, and have all mod cons. The only twists are the auditorium that can double as a display space at the curving, eastern edge, and the escalator that leads directly from the underground special exhibition space, a cavern of 10,000 square feet, up into its counterpart on the piano nobile, bypassing the ground floor’s confusion.
The Stedelijk’s real glory, though, is the renovation of the existing galleries. Architect Mels Crouwel took space away here by building new walls in front of the old ones, hovering above the ground and below the ceiling, that hide all technical services and give the rooms a clarity and cleanliness I find astonishing. What he removed at eye height, he gave back by removing layers of encrustations and opening the skylights back up, so that the galleries are taller and feel larger. Even the small cabinets on the ground room seem more spacious in their restricted confines.
It reminded me of the ability of good design to manipulate space not in the absolute, but in proportion and in the removal of those elements that cloud your view and confuse your senses. These are among the most beautiful Modernist spaces I have seen in a long time, and they are a fitting container for the Stedelijk’s collection, even if I wish that those works of art that come out of a similar tradition, as opposed to the messier and more conceptual works the current director have chosen, were more on view. I grew up as a kid in the Netherlands going to the Stedelijk, and there are other things I miss, such as the crowding into the old entrance, on the building’s opposite edge, where you hurried in from the busy street and where we all seemed so eager to get at the art exactly because the space was so confined and confused; the march up the kind of grand staircase we expect from 19th-century buildings of importance; and the restaurant with its Karel Appel murals. That, however, is nostalgia, which I hang onto and live out by revisiting some of my favorite paintings. The Stedelijk now is a museum of modern art, and an exhibitor of modern architecture, that fully lives up to its mission.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.