Surely no contemporary building has had a more unlikely trajectory over the last two decades than the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. It is both an emblem of the rise of arguably the world’s most influential living architect and the setting for one of the most spectacular art-heists in modern memory. Action, adventure, architectural history—this project has it all. And now it has entered a new chapter quietly and inconspicuously—just how the architect would like it.
Completed in 1992, the Kunsthal was one of the first buildings to emerge from the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), cofounded by Dutch design mastermind Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA. Koolhaas had come to architecture after years as a would-be filmmaker and journalist; his 1978 book, Delirious New York, broke like a thunderclap over the profession, announcing the arrival of a wildcat iconoclast who’d set his face against modernist pieties and postmodernist cheek. Until the late ’80s, OMA’s work had comprised mostly speculative and unbuilt—or unbuildable—projects, including a contribution to the 1980 Venice Biennale’s Strada Novissima installation and a failed proposal for Paris’s Parc de la Villette.
The Kunsthal could thus be considered the first project to translate Koolhaas’s hyperactive functionalism and irreverent regard for form into architecture. Squat and square, the structure is divided into two volumes. One features an upper course of stone cladding above a lower register of glass, in alternating straight and angled strips that are punctuated by regular vertical mullions. The other features a fully glazed enclosure topped by a Miesian, flat, steel roof.
With Rotterdam’s existing art museums freighted with their own permanent collections, the municipal government commissioned the project to create a space that could host temporary exhibitions, film screenings, art classes, and dining. Koolhaas seized the mixed program with gusto, creating a layered sequence of spaces, including a semi-outdoor café, auditorium, and exhibition halls, all of which overlapped each other in a determinedly anti-hierarchical jumble.
OMA has certainly evolved since then, but signature elements in the Kunsthal have appeared again and again, in projects from the Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal, to the Seattle Public Library. As the firm’s breakthrough building, the Kunsthal had surely secured a place in history. Unfortunately, it’s not the only reason why the building is famous.
In October 2012, as part of the institution’s 20th anniversary, the Kunsthal presented a show of major 19th- and 20th-century paintings from the Triton Foundation collection. On Oct. 16, two thieves broke into the rear entrance of the building in the early morning, triggering the alarm but escaping with seven masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and Matisse.
The robbery was one of the most costly to hit the art world in a long time: The combined insurance value topped $23.8 million, and the resale price would have been even higher. But with the pieces logged in the Art Loss Register, hindering their sale on the international market, the thieves fled with the loot to their native Romania, where one of them made a fateful decision: He entrusted the paintings to his mother, who then allegedly burned them in her home fireplace to hide her son’s guilt.
The thieves and conspirator pled guilty last year and were sentenced to prison. But with its security system exposed as a near total dud, the Kunsthal has not quite recovered from the publicity. As part of its efforts to reinvent itself, the institution completed its first major renovation in January, with Koolhaas and company back at the helm.
OMA partner Ellen van Loon, who led the renovation, wasn’t with the firm during the Kunsthal’s original construction, but she certainly knew it well. “It’s a project that’s hard to miss,” van Loon says. “At the time it was built, it was quite a progressive project in Holland, and it made a lot of people discuss architecture. There weren’t any architects who didn’t notice it.”
In returning to a building that was so central to OMA’s early days, you might expect a certain cringe factor—like looking at your own baby pictures—but van Loon and her team were fairly pleased by how well the building had weathered. “Our conclusion was that the building worked better than anyone thought, from day one,” she says. “Materials that people said would only wear five years would wear 20 or longer.”
That said, the building needed a tune-up, and not just to its security system. Sustainable design was in its infancy when the initial scheme was completed, and higher performance standards have since become de rigueur for OMA and the profession at large. Updates to the building envelope and M/E/P systems, which will slip by unnoticed by most visitors, will reduce the museum’s heating bill by an estimated 30 percent, and the energy consumed by its electrical and HVAC systems by 28 percent.
Achieving these improvements without distorting the essence and experience of the Kunsthal required strategic moves guided by the subtlest of design changes. High-performance double-glazing replaced the wraparound windows. Fluorescent lamps and LEDs have partially replaced conventional sources in the museum’s distinctive lighting plan. Low-flow fixtures outfit the reconfigured bathrooms, and a heat recovery system salvages thermal energy circulating through the building. Humidity and carbon dioxide monitoring systems maintain the physical comfort of visitors.
The central museum’s open plan also experienced some tweaks. The “continuous routing,” as van Loon describes it, meant that large swathes of the building had to be conditioned even when they weren’t in use. New glass partitions allow heating and cooling to be delivered to areas where needed, and shut off where they’re not.
Next on the docket was the Kunsthal’s programmatic layout. “The building is visited by many more people than we originally planned,” van Loon says. Though the renovation brief didn’t specify an expansion of the approximately 70,000-square-foot interior, the existing envelope could accommodate more museumgoers. The building’s main entrance was relocated to what was formerly the entrance to the restaurant; now guests are steered through the café and museum shop, around a cloakroom and restrooms, and then up and down the iconic ramps.
Along with minor shifts and partitions in the interior plan and a revised wayfinding and signage system, the rearrangement allows different parts of the building to be used simultaneously and discretely by different users. This reflects in part a major shift in Dutch society since the early ’90s: While the Kunsthal was once almost exclusively government funded, it now has to rent out its spaces to outside groups to generate revenue. “We basically made the building more multifunctional,” van Loon says—an operation that is very much in line with OMA’s functionalist philosophy.
As for security?…?well, let’s just say major changes have been made. With the top-to-bottom refurbishment of Amsterdam’s massive Rijksmuseum finished just last year, a lot of experts in art protection are rattling around the Netherlands these days. OMA found a local consultant—they declined to name which—to help ensure that the 2012 incident does not repeat. Neither van Loon, nor anyone else, can discuss the new security measures. “It’s confidential,” she says. Understandable.
When it comes to iconic buildings, the potential to over-tinker with the original concept always hangs above the heads of those who are overseeing the renovation. The Kunsthal, though, had the good fortune to be operated upon by its own progenitors, who—as parents often do—combined a special reverence for their creation with a frankness in assessing its flaws.
Looking back, van Loon does see that the initial scheme left room for improvement—but not in the way of making the museum more of a guarded citadel. If anything, she says, the renovation has opened up the building and made it even more of an OMA project: active, stimulating, and full of surprises and unexpected maneuvers. “What we’ve done is [added] these acupunctural interventions on the project to make it work better functionally,” she says. “It’s just more flexible now, without losing the original idea.” —Ian Volner