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Ramped up: Kunsthal Rotterdam refurbishment by OMA

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OMA’s update of its 1992 Kunsthal Rotterdam has refined the circulation, including the signature ramp, writes Hattie Hartman

October 2012, OMA’s seminal 1992 Kunsthal in Rotterdam was the target of a major art theft. Seven paintings, including a Picasso, a Monet, a Gauguin, a Matisse and a Freud were removed at 3am by thieves, who had vanished by the time the police - notified by the museum’s alarm system - arrived. Prompted into action, the City of Rotterdam, which owns the building and leases it to the museum operators, decided to undertake a holistic refurbishment which would address not only security, but other limitations of the building which had emerged over its 20-year life.

Writing in Domus shortly after the building opened, Kenneth Frampton described the Kunsthal as a ‘transgressive building, the most rigorous and exhilarating public building that Koolhaas has produced to date’. OMA associate Alex de Jong observes that the Kunsthal was the first building where the practice was able to synthesise different aspects of its design philosophy, among them spatial organisation, transparency and materials. A deceptively simple rectilinear exterior encloses a layering of routes through the building and complex spatial arrangements.


Fronting on to a land-bound dyke which was built in the 1950s after Rotterdam suffered major flooding, the building backs on to the Museumpark, 5.5m below the dyke entry level. Part of the original brief for the building was to connect the city north of the dyke to the Museumpark. OMA responded with an exterior pedestrian ramp which penetrates the building, with the original entrance partway down the ramp. In a rationalising of the route through the building, the new entrance is now located at the ‘back’ of the Kunsthal directly from the Museumpark. One enters into a café-cum-ticket area-cum-bookshop, a space which responds to the multipurpose commercial imperatives of today’s museums.

The Kunsthal’s envelope is comprised of thin veneers - glazing, travertine, concrete, U-glass and corrugated glassfibre reinforced plastic sheeting - and was detailed to read as such, sometimes posing construction challenges. De Jong explains that over the years, the practice had occasionally been called in to resolve ongoing minor problems, many a result of the building’s complex detailing. The practice welcomed the opportunity to reconsider the building holistically and update it to meet the requirements of a 21st-century museum.


Two important aspects of the programme have evolved over two decades of use. Originally envisioned to house primarily three-dimensional installations, the Kunsthal today increasingly hosts exhibitions which demand a high level of acclimatisation to protect paintings and other art objects. The museum has also experienced a greater demand to host simultaneous exhibitions with separate ticketed entry. The original Kunsthal was deliberately designed as a single shed to house a variety of art experiences. Part of the refurbishment involves a subtle compartmentalisation of the building’s three exhibition areas and the auditorium by the introduction of new doors. De Jong observes, ‘When it’s your own building, it’s easy to make decisions about how to intervene’.

The refurbishment also provided an opportunity to upgrade the building’s environmental performance, because energy costs were depleting a disproportionately high percentage of the museum’s operating budget. De Jong notes that the mechanical plant, value-engineered during the original contract, was no longer fit for purpose. On the most extreme summer days, the facilities manager would spray the chillers with water to keep them from overheating. This in turn led to roof leaks in areas not designed to resist sprayed water.
Dutch energy supplier Eneco, and mechanical contractor and facilities manager Roodenburg teamed with the Kunsthal’s original contractor to undertake the project through a leaseback arrangement.


The £5.2 million cost has been financed upfront by the consortium, and will be paid back over a 15-year period with the savings in energy costs. Roodenburg, the original mechanical contractor and responsible for facilities management throughout, had developed an intimate knowledge of the museum’s servicing requirements. Initial discussion about replacing chillers and improving security evolved into a fully fledged refurbishment, which included upgrades to the building envelope, renewing the mechanical plant, and improving lighting and the building management system.

Penetrated by the north-south pedestrian ramp and an east-west service road which runs below the building, the Kunsthal has a large proportion of exterior envelope despite its compact form, making it relatively energy inefficient. Over 1,200m2 of glazing, which comprises about 50 per cent of the envelope, was replaced with high-performance security double-glazing with a U-value of approximately 1.1. An additional 80mm of waterproof insulation was added to the roof, though only minimal insulation could be added to the walls to avoid changing the building’s external appearance. Compartmentalisation of the galleries means that they can be conditioned to meet different requirements, further reducing energy demand. On the A to G scale of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the combination of improvements upgraded the building from a low ‘G’ to a ‘D’.


The rationalisation of the route through the building does not feel like a compromise. The new entrance through the light-filled café overlooking the park makes the most of this appealing space, refreshed by new OMA-designed joinery for the reception, bookshop and café, including a concrete bar which required new pilings. Wardrobes and toilets have been reconfigured to complete the link through to the galleries. Other changes include new signage and the introduction of large orange arrows to mark the entrance, a concession to the need for improved wayfinding.

During the six weeks since the reopening, the Kunsthal has received 50,000 visitors, 25 per cent more than the same period last year. One result of this increase in visitor numbers is unforeseen acoustic challenges for museum staff. De Jong says, ‘A building is never done. We make harsh buildings where there is still something for visitors to discover. We do not want to remove all the risks.’ The new Kunsthal has not lost its edge. 

Project data

Start on site July 2013
Completion January 2014
Total floor area 7,800m2
Refurbished floor area 695m2
Construction cost £5.2 million (€6.2 million)
Client Stadsontwikkeling Rotterdam
Structural engineer Theo Wulffraat & Partners
Energy and lighting Eneco
Services Roodenburg Installatie Bedrijf
Main contractor Dura Vermeer
Predicted reduction in heating load 30 per cent
Predicted reduction in electrical load 28 per cent
Predicted annual c02 emissions reduction 29 per cent

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