Project DescriptionCultural Projects
Amsterdam’s temple to the Dutch Masters reopens after a decadelong renovation that blends modern design by Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos with a revamped curatorial strategy in the fully restored galleries.
Ten years is not such a long time in the life of a museum, least of all one that’s already 128 years old. For the paintings and sculptures inside, some of them still centuries older, it’s scarcely the batting of an eye. But for millions of art lovers the world over, it can seem an eternity.
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum ranks among the world’s great treasure houses of art, in a class shared perhaps only by Paris’s Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery. Since 2003, it’s been closed to the public, undergoing an extensive renovation. In April, with the work at last complete, the stately edifice on the Museumplein opened its doors once more, revealing a much-changed space that will afford visitors a very different look at the masterpieces they’ve waited a decade to see.
“The building we found was dark, labyrinthine, and difficult to navigate,” says principal Antonio Ortiz, whose Seville, Spain–based practice Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos oversaw the project. Since 1885, when the Rijksmuseum took up residence in its current digs, its vast trove of objets d’art was organized along a loose and sometimes illogical pattern, on a floor plan that made it easy for museumgoers to lose their way. Its halls were poorly lit, its public areas cramped and inhospitable.
Cruz y Ortiz have changed all that with a suite of improvements including a pavilion for Asian art and a central atrium that acts as the nerve center of the building. The April debut put the capstone on the Spanish firm’s long-standing involvement with the Dutch museum, following previous projects that included a temporary information center. “There is an ‘empty nest’ feeling,” confesses Ortiz, looking back on his years-long commitment to the institution.
But more than just a spatial tune-up, the transformation of the museum entailed a comprehensive re-engineering of its curatorial approach. Rijksmuseum director of collections Taco Dibbits explains, “We looked at the collection from the angle of time, not material.” The institution’s huge cache of works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Gerard ter Borch, and other masters now appears at intervals with contemporaneous suits of armor, ceramics, and textiles. The tactic gives the visitor a fuller sense of Dutch history and of the cultural climate from which the artworks emerged. Wim Pijbes, general director of the museum, calls the new experience a franker, more accessible one that puts the viewer in charge. “Visitors can wander,” he says. “They can search through more than 8,000 pieces of art on display, from the Middle Ages to Mondrian.”
Design again played a key role in this changed artistic encounter, with the museum installing an elaborate new system of lights, showcases, and surface treatments to give the art greater presence. French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, of Parisian firm Wilmotte & Associés, was r: His mission, says the designer, was “to make the architecture disappear, so you can see the objects.” The walls of the galleries were formerly painted bright white, a not uncommon color for museum interiors but one that seemed to distract from the very subdued portraits and genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Wilmotte opted instead for pale gray, complemented by a system of indirect lighting and spotlighting that makes the paintings pop. Wilmotte’s most outstanding contribution might be the vitrines and ultra-clear standing displays, packed in some instances with an array of objects seemingly floating in air. “I like the accumulation style,” Wilmotte . “Two or three glasses together are boring. A hundred is good.”
Still, the most startling change is the new central foyer, where Cruz y Ortiz have cleared away layers of dirt and paint in two courtyards to form a visually coherent, skylit concourse. “We always try to find synergy between old and new buildings,” says partner Muriel Huisman. “We don’t look for narratives.” In this instance, Ortiz’s addition of enormous chandeliers—their metal frames suspended just below the pitched glass ceiling—makes sense spatially. It “creates human scale,” notes Huisman, even if their minimalist whiteness and repeated rectilinear forms don’t seem entirely at home against the decorative red brick of the old building walls. The monolithic masonry portals inserted in the concourse also seem somewhat superfluous, though they’re evidently meant to play some role in channeling foot traffic.
The problem of old and new, dark and light, has always been one that’s dogged the Rijksmuseum. Even at its original opening in 1885, the building was “not well received,” Ortiz says, its extensive frescoes and decorative touches striking the Protestant Dutch sensibility as too “cathedral-like.” All those ornamental features, long-since painted over, have been restored in the renovation; but unlike so many museum restorations, this intensive sprucing-up has made the building feel only more homey and welcoming, not less so.
“We want to share our institution, share our collection,” Pijbes says, noting that it’s the museum’s goal for every Dutch schoolchild to see Rembrandt’s famous group portrait The Night Watch (the only painting that remained on view in Amsterdam during the renovation, and the only one returned to its original location in the museum after it reopened).
If the objective of the renovation was to shine a little daylight—literally and metaphorically—on this dusky old museum and its often dusky old paintings, then it’s certainly succeeded. Not that daylight was so unfamiliar to the likes of Jan Vermeer and Franz Hals, of course. “To me, Dutch painting is about light,” Dibbits says. “Though you need darkness to see light.”
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