Rembrandt and Vermeer move back home

Spanish architectural team completes restoration of Rijksmuseum

A view of the east patio of the Rijksmuseum taken in the process of its restoration, which was photographed by José Manuel Ballester.
A view of the east patio of the Rijksmuseum taken in the process of its restoration, which was photographed by José Manuel Ballester.

When restoration work at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam began, construction workers had to use diving suits to be able to work on the foundations. The original building by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers was literally raised in the air, since this was the only way to cement it and guarantee its permanence.

But working inside 10-meter-deep wells was just a foretaste of the difficulties lying ahead for Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who were directing the reforms. The greatest complication came from cyclists who refused to give up their historical right to use the museum's central passage; there was a protracted battle involving 80 new building permits that thwarted the original plans and delayed work significantly.

Finally, four years after the planned completion date (for a grand total of 12 years) and after pouring in considerably more money than was initially budgeted (375 million euros in the end), the museum is ready to take back artworks that are beloved by the Dutch and by the art world in general. These include essential paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, together with other artistic jewels that will now shine with the kind of light that time had dampened, and that an entire generation of Dutch had been unable to contemplate.

When the curtain of cranes, plastic sheeting and cement was pulled back, the old 19th-century building reappeared in all its splendor. The darkness and the maze of corridors that made circulation nearly impossible have given way to well-lit galleries organized around two courtyards and a striking 2,250-square-meter atrium. With its 80 exhibition rooms, restaurant, cafeteria, auditorium and meeting room, the new and improved Rijksmuseum can easily take in two million visitors a year, according to museum estimates.

The artist José Manuel Ballester photographed the year-on-year transformation of this unique space, just like he did with the Archeological Museum. His photographic record of the museum's rebirth contains the kind of narrative tension found in movies.

We find a luminous, clear, intelligible building in contrast to the previous dark and labyrinthine situation"

Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who have studios in Madrid and Amsterdam, are the designers of landmark buildings such as La Cartuja stadium in Seville and La Peineta stadium in Madrid. They said they are satisfied with the final result at the Rijksmuseum despite the difficulties, and explained their task was to restore the building to its original grandeur, proportions and space, eliminating the unfortunate alterations that had been effected over the years.

"In order to obtain more exhibition space, the original construction had been radically transformed," they explain. "When the Dutch go back to their museum, they will find something that is practically unknown to them: a luminous, clear, intelligible building in contrast to the previous dark and labyrinthine situation."

"The goal of the public competition and the goal of museum managers was always very clear: they didn't want a larger museum, but a better museum. When it re-opens, it will have less exhibition space than before, but the building will recover its character - a luminous look that had been completely lost."

The story of the Netherlands is the story of a constant battle to take land back from the sea. The process of re-cementing the old building went through some dramatic moments, but now the hurdles have been cleared, the architects can speak calmly about the impositions placed by water.

"A great deal of the intervention was executed underground. We built several floors below street level that resolved many of the museum's shortcomings, and in Amsterdam you just need to dig a little to run into not just the phreatic stratum, but sea level altogether. Work in this respect was very complicated because we dug down to a depth of 10 meters in order to create artwork storage space. So the technical difficulties were enormous."

But things were about to get a lot hairier in a city where cyclists have more rights than pedestrians. The original project by Cruz and Ortiz eliminated the historical cycling lane. The response by local residents was so forceful that construction was completely paralyzed for two years, during which time the architects' plans had to be rerouted. Recurring protests and the need for 80 new building permits made them fear for the project.

"The entire discussion hinged on whether bicycles had to keep going through the building's central passage or whether they could share it with the new access to the museum. The provisional result of this discussion made it impossible to implement the access solution that we considered ideal. In the end, and only very recently, the city and the district have decided that bicycles will never again be allowed on the passage. It is a long and absurd story that resulted in the final access solution not being the ideal one."

But none of this has made them hate bicycles, they say. "That wouldn't make any sense. We use them regularly in Seville and certainly in Amsterdam when we are there."

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