The newly refurbished Dutch national gallery and museum, the Rijksmuseum, completes the story of Pierre Cuypers’ Gothic pile, writes Rory Olcayto
All the great spaces in the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national museum and gallery, are ones where your passage through them really matters. The first memorable interior is the huge hallway that splits the red brick Gothic pile in half, creating two courtyards around which its three floors of galleries are arranged. It’s part of Amsterdam’s road network.
It was created because the 1885 Pierre Cuypers building is located on the edge of what was then a newly planned district south-east of the central core and the city fathers wanted a through route to the old town. It is the only one of its kind in the world. As you would expect, Amsterdam’s many cyclists love it. In Holland, architecture and town planning always go hand in hand. If you cycled through it 10 or 20 years ago, it would have been dark, grubby. Today, it is bathed in light and you can pick out the detailed stone and brickwork as you pedal through.
The next great space, the Gallery of Honour, is one floor up, directly above the indoor road. It is a processional route which leads to the museum’s chief attraction, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, a group portrait from 1642 of one of Amsterdam’s city patrols. Legend has it that Cuypers planned the entire museum around it. The painting’s splendid characters, each of whom seems to be wearing a specific hat, cap or helmet, the costumes, and the energetic composition - the guards are setting off on a beat - can be clearly seen from one end of the hall and, as you walk towards it, you pass under a ribbed, vaulted ceiling supported by striped columns with ornately sculpted capitals.
Bays to the left and right, with walls a soothing shade of grey, are hung with paintings from Holland’s Golden Age, including Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as Apostle Paul, from which he peers out of the dark: aged, tired and wise.
The other great space is a new one: a vast basement concourse hewn from Cuypers’ courtyards. Each one is dominated by a huge chandelier cage suspended from the distant glass roof. These self-consciously modern additions contrast with the restored internal facades but soak up din and clatter, too.
The concourse is the most obvious evidence of the Dutch government’s 375 million euro, 10-year refurbishment and refit, led by Spanish architect Cruz y Ortiz with Dutch restoration specialist Van Hoogevest Architecten and French museum ‘scenographer’ Wilmotte & Associés. It is where you first enter the Rijksmuseum, buy your tickets and hang your coat in the cloakroom. This wasn’t always the case. Previously visitors queued outside.
Now one courtyard has a café raised on a polished limestone deck. The other has monumental limestone portals, which funnel through to galleries alongside and above. The courtyards are connected by an underpass that sits below the cycle route. This continuous floorplate, the architects say, is an inner-city square, where visitors can mingle, linger and sit, as well as come and go. Just like Amsterdam itself, whose clockwork townscape seems powered by the constant flow of bikes and trams, cars and trains, the new Rijksmuseum has been designed as part of that whole, with a plan and circulation that keeps you on the move.
It is not the first time the building has been reworked. There have been dozens of alterations and renovations since it opened, none sympathetic. It seems Cuypers was never much liked by museum bosses. Soon after his death in 1921, director Schmidt Degener wrote to the Dutch government, explaining: ‘I have had the excessive decoration toned down.’ Cuypers was Catholic, his design fanciful, his buildings’ mix of gothic and renaissance styles a sign of a pre- reformation Holland. Consequently, little care was taken in retaining either its spatial integrity or its intricate interior details. Most significantly, in the 1960s, the two courtyards were filled in, creating a labyrinthine floorplate visitors struggled to navigate. In 2000 a plan was hatched to restore Cuypers’ original vision alongside a top-to-bottom refit that would include new buildings: a gallery to house the Asian collection and the now pefunctory education centre. Cruz y Ortiz and Van Hoogevest Architecten were appointed in 2002 and work was begun on site a year later. In 2004, Jean Michel Wilmotte’s Parisian firm, famous for its ‘museum scenography’ in the Louvre, joined the team.
Together, these architects adopted a motto: ‘Cuypers for the 21st century’. Antonio Ortiz puts it like this: ‘We wanted to make it even more Rijksmuseum than before.’ The Spanish firm’s masterplan has made that possible. Working with director Wim Pijbes’ big idea for the museum (conceived, in fact, by the previous director, Ronald de Leeuw) and gallery director Taco Dibbets, floor plans have been rearranged to show the collection chronologically. That has meant displaying objects and paintings from the same era alongside each other, and restoring the murals and sculptures that Cuypers incorporated into his original interior design. Amazingly, many of these works had been hacked away or whitewashed in a Calvinist fit of pique.
Elsewhere, to make this vision work, Wilmotte did the opposite, using a grey colour palette in the galleries ‘to make the architecture disappear’ in order to better show the art. It’s much the same with the display cases. Two hundred of them, holding objects including guns, china, and furniture, can seem barely there.
‘They are frameless,’ says Wilmotte, ‘and use non-reflecting glass to blur the boundary between inside and out.’
The new Asian Pavilion, housing art from China, Japan, Indonesia, and beyond, is accessed from the new concourse. It is the only part of the project entirely designed by the Spanish studio, including all the displays. It has two floors, one below ground. At garden level, a thin moat traces an angular footprint. This spiky plan seems wilful at first, but a walk around it is pleasant enough. Routes and vistas unfold gently and the curator on guard was touchingly proud: ‘They listened to us,’ he says, of Cruz y Ortiz. ‘We had a proper dialogue. The longer I live with it, the more I like it.’
Despite claiming to do non-narrative architecture - ‘we don’t tell stories with our buildings’ - Ortiz’s clear planning has enabled the museum to do just that. Perhaps they’re telling Cuypers’ story, which had been shelved for nearly 100 years. But it’s a new story, too, co-written by the directors, speaking of a layout that propels you through space and time. You’ll probably want to slow your pace for Holland’s Golden Age, on the second floor and for the Rembrandt galleries, and for the top-floor 20th century rooms, where a protoype Rietveld chair in white awaits. The library, too, a four-storey volume with an exquisite spiral staircase and balustrade in iron will stop you in your tracks.
‘We used a long, low voice,’ says Cruz, suggesting the new museum design has a timeless quality. Hopefully, too, it will ward off future meddlers, because the Rijksmuseum is, finally, the way it was meant to be.