Beyond Buildings


Fitting the Frame: The Renovation of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam

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Stedelijk Museum. Courtesty Stedlijk Museum.


One of the things I have enjoyed learning from the Dutch is the importance of reuse. This is a very small and artificial country, built on and out of swamp, and there is very little virgin territory. Thus much Dutch architecture is literally or conceptually a form of reuse. What should be the nature of such reuse? Should we fix up the past and restore it as it was? Should be reassemble the pieces? Or is reuse a question of creating a visible hybrid of the old or new? Rem Koolhaas, in his role as sage provocateur, has made these questions his latest preoccupation. The reality is not always as ideal.

Barbara Kruger's supergraphics. Courtesy: Wegener NieuwsMedia.

The Dutch, for all their prowess in design, seem to have a hard time getting things renovated lately. It will take 10 years to renovate the national museum, the Rijksmuseum, and at least six to renovate and add on to Amsterdam’s modern art museum, the Stedelijk. At least the Stedelijk has opened the renovated part of its building to the public, and filled it with some works of art. Actually, sprinkled a few installations around the empty halls would be more like it: Director Ann Goldstein, constricted by the fact that she cannot place pieces from the collection there (the climate control isn’t in place yet), invited a few artists to create or place pieces in some of the galleries. Some of the results, such as Barbara Kruger’s room-filling supergraphics, are spectacular, others are less so, but they have the effect of making you realize how grand, in both sense of the word, these classical galleries are. This is especially true of the many galleries that are completely empty and serve like antechambers to or pauses between pieces.  

Wandering through these voids made me realize two things. The first is that the rigid rules of Beaux-Arts architecture, when properly followed, hadve the effect of creating spaces whose proportions are magnificent, with each of the top-floor rooms also bathing in natural light from skylights. Architects Mels Crouwel and Jan Benthem of Benthem Crouwel Architects have done a wonderful job in not only leaving well enough alone, but removing the layers of ceilings, cornices, surrounds, and other extraneous details that had crept in over the years. Rather than restoring the original moldings, they opted for the kind of clearing out that Modernism does at its best, so that it makes you realize the character of the space. Thus the architecture of renovation can bring out, strengthen, and focus past forms.

Second, these kind of room were made for paintings and sculptures. Even the most successful installations looked a bit out of place in these rectangular and square volumes, and the video installations seemed to float or be crammed in them with no relation to the spaces. Great architecture can create a frame than enhances work, but, to do so, it usually have to restrict its subject. That is why modern museum administrators and curators choose for the blandest space possible, usually banning daylight and anything that might restrict what would look good, or at least decent, in hangars. Thus architecture, in its very constraints, creates both character and limitations &mdashlwhich I think can be good.

Benthem Crouwel Architects has also designed a new set of spaces for the Stedelijk, which will open in about a year and a half, and which promisse to be an appropriate setting for contemporary work. I hope they will be as good for those pieces as these rooms will be for permanent collection of 20th century art that will soon hang there.  Next week I am off to see the new Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and then the new American Wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Art.  I will be curious to see how well these do framing art and whether the production of the shiny, the new, the open, and the flexible will offer a strong alternative to the beauties of reuse.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.