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Metamorphology - Benthem Crouwel's Stedelijk Museum

Benthem Crouwel’s expansion and renovation of the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art and design in Amsterdam is neither morphology nor alchemy, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Jannes Linders

The Netherlands’ unique social dualism, balancing narrow, bourgeois, conservative values with liberalism, laissez-faire and multiculturalism, is perhaps most pronounced in its capital, Amsterdam. The city’s Stedelijk Museum of modern and contemporary art and design thrives on this dynamic. Dwelling in a purpose-built neo-Dutch Renaissance pile designed by AW Weissman since 1895, it is a pedestal for a renowned collection rendered near-priceless by scarcity and esotericism but, despite high admission charges, it trades on accessibility and seemingly courts controversy.

In 1938, with the director away, Willem Sandberg, who later replaced him, influentially stripped out and whitewashed the interior, throwing exhibits into stark contrast with their setting. Many of these displays, and the museum’s landmark temporary exhibitions have themselves been controversial and, in 2006, marking the start of demolition work on Sandberg’s 1954 glassy extension prior to the Stedelijk’s expansion and renovation, a council member threw a stone through one of its windows.

Since its reopening in September, the Stedelijk is more completely an architectural duality. As in its Anne Frank House project, architect Benthem Crouwel has worked at opposite poles on new and existing fabric. The renovation work to the 1895 museum is sympathetic to Weissman’s approach, which is, in the linguistic sense, morphological, working with traditional architectural vocabularies and design disciplines, whereas the expansion project sees the architect in the role of alchemist, seemingly materialising something unprecedented and remarkable out of thin air.

Cultures and man-made environments are inherently unnatural, but the artificiality of Amsterdam, with its dense population, high water table and complex religious and colonial history, rivals Venice, Tokyo and New York. At the Stedelijk, this context is conflated with the museum’s artificial and rarefied role and its focus on transformations and radical events. In place of a typical Amsterdam canal corridor or a commanding dockside site, its setting is the Museumplein, a plaza with a large public lawn and a string of cultural buildings: Cuypers’ eclectic Rijksmuseum, originally home to the Stedelijk’s collection; Rietveld’s Van Gogh Museum, extended by Kurokawa in 1999, into which most of the Stedelijk’s Van Goghs were decanted, and the Concertgebouw.

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Whereas these neighbours retain entrances to the north, Benthem and Crouwel have radically moved the Stedelijk’s to its south side, and this integration with the Museumplein is reinforced by concentrating its public facilities, including the entrance area, restaurant and shop in a large, virtually column-free space in a glass-enveloped space within the new extension, level with the external plaza and plugged into the central circulation axis of the original Stedelijk.

The price tag for this generous ground-floor space is the location of what is the nations’ largest free-span exhibition gallery in the basement, a major undertaking, given Amsterdam’s ground conditions. This gallery, served by a lift in a freestanding tower to the south, provides a permanent home for the museum’s remarkable collection, which had outgrown the substandard accommodation and inadequate climate control in Weissman’s museum.

Adding this gallery to the upper floor accommodation for temporary exhibitions, offices and auditorium would have increased either the extension’s height, constrained by the original Stedelijk’s, or its footprint.

The extension makes a clean break with Weissman’s architectural language, with no attempt to match and rhyme with its banded masonry, quoins, bullseyes, gables, pinnacles, scrolls, parapet urns, alternating sun-ray voussoirs, flattened arches, diamond panels and bosses, contrasting smooth surfaces and simple forms with Weissman’s texture and elaborate detail, just as Sandberg had transformed his interiors. ‘We painted everything Sandberg white,’ says partner Mels Crouwel. Like the glazed junctions between old and new, this leaves the original museum visually intact by avoiding a muddle.

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Of course, the best-known fact about the Stedelijk extension is its ‘bathtub’ sobriquet. Although Crouwel is very much part of Amsterdam’s architectural establishment, his tone of voice conveys a familiar, urbane, blasé and culturally gridlocked Continental cynicism. ‘I’m getting a bit tired of it: we nicknamed it “the bathtub” ourselves - a nickname is expected in Amsterdam, so we got in there first.’ ‘The bathtub’ is accurate enough, because of the colour, finish and sump of the volume, which hovers above ground-floor level and with its rooftop flange it resembles a modern tub ready to be lowered into its housing.

These sobriquets are a fact of architectural life and hardly terminal. Actors refer to inadvertent onstage laughter as ‘corpsing’, because it shatters an audience’s suspended disbelief and Prince Charles has used epithets to dismiss buildings, as though picking off game with a shotgun: ‘Old 1930s wireless’. Bang! ‘A dustbin on the outside’. Splat!

But architectural life can go on after these comparisons have been made, just as architects can move on after word pictures have served their purpose in design development, especially where the resemblance stops well short of mimesis, as it does at the Stedelijk. It’s more surreal than hyper-real.

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The bathtub is certainly an apt image, resonating with art works by Janine Antoni and Beuys as well as Duchamp’s urinal. Like galleries, bathtubs are places for contemplation and ‘Eureka moments’ and you could see the new temporary gallery as a container that is periodically refilled. Its rude, crude and utilitarian connotations have helped drive the Stedelijk’s well-oiled publicity machine.

Another quirky, if more detailed, moment is the squiggly movement joint in the bathtub’s monocoque cladding, repeated on each elevation. With a length of 100m, the tub is said to have the largest composite building envelope in the world and its smooth, flat surface required careful and ingenious design and planning. Crouwel says these movement joints are tongue-in-cheek, provided because the architects were told they were necessary, despite the choice of a form of construction which could accommodate thermal movement.

‘The rest is purely functional,’ says Crouwel. I’m inclined to believe him, given Benthem Crouwel’s functionalist pedigree and portfolio of high-profile architectural and infrastructure projects. Despite the quality of its daylit spaces, the original building had a leaking roof, so paintings were damaged and in 2004 the fire department closed the Stedelijk. Sandberg’s glazed extension opened up views of the exhibits to passers-by but was problematic for light-sensitive objects. The new Stedelijk benefits from a rigorous functional approach, with a reason for everything.

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The bathtub’s roof-level flange shelters the entrance plaza from rain and sun. Its inclined walls shed rainwater, with all the pragmatism of traditional Amsterdam facades. The museum’s spatial continuity and circulation work beautifully, helping visitors to choose their route, whether to the existing galleries or to new exhibition halls via broad, elegant suspended and bracketed staircases. An escalator clad in a yellow tube with radiused corners transports visitors directly from lower basement to first floor level and back again, by-passing ground-floor distractions.

The details have a nice, clean touch, from the sturdily haunched legs of the bathtub to the oval profile brackets supporting the staircase down to the basement, its balustrade elevations gently radiused. The basement library doors are also a delight and the glass walls that enclose the space below the tub are elegantly braced by dark cables connected to tapering bracket plates: they don’t disappear, though clearly don’t inhabit the same architectural universe as the tub and Weissman’s facade.

As is often the case, you might feel short-changed if you look down on that bathtub flange only to realise that it isn’t really wafer-thin. The section through this canopy also gives this trick away, however, it also reveals a surprisingly integrated relationship between the forms of the old and new fabric. Taken as a whole, and in its continuity with earlier Benthem Crouwel projects, this extension and renovation is neither morphology nor alchemy, but a metamorphosis. As Picasso said: ‘There is no abstract art. You must always start with something.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of the Stedelijk Museum by Benthem Crouwel

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