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Digging deep

Hugh Pearman

They are very keen, the Dutch museum people, on telling you that their Rijksmuseum – their National Gallery – is about history as much as it is about art, above all their 17th century Golden Age. It is also about objects as much as it is about paintings, though let’s face it – everyone goes there for the Vermeers and the Rembrandts. But there is another layer here: the building itself.

As originally built in 1885 by Petrus Josephus (Pierre) Cuypers, in over-cautious redbrick Gothic Revival with an intrusive polychromatic internal decorative scheme, the product of a Roman Catholic church-builder in a largely Protestant country, it was eyed askance by the populace which never came to love it. Rightly so, I think, it was a beast of a place, hard to navigate, and one that did the unpardonable thing of visually competing with some of the finest art in the world. Now however, it has reopened after a rebuilding programme lasting over a decade, and costing €375m. For that time and money, you expect to find a marvel.  It’s not quite that, but it’s good.

The architects here are a triumvirate: the Spanish practice of Cruz y Ortiz makes the big moves, the French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte does the interiors, and Dutch restoration specialists Van Hoogevest Architecten have brought Cuypers back to life. It’s clear that these three sets of designers pulled to some extent in different directions (even the museum’s own magazine talks of a clash of egos), and to this you must add a fourth player: Dutch cyclists, an enormously powerful lobby group representing pretty much the whole population. Why? Because as originally designed by Cuypers, the building has a street running right through the middle of it, a kind of neo-Gothic subway beneath the principal ‘Hall of Honour’ gallery above, allowing you to cycle from one side to the other on your way between the city centre and the outskirts. This spinal column of the building separated the museum’s two main glazed courtyards – which had become filled with regrettable later additions. Cruz y Ortiz, wanting to provide a central focus and distribution point as had previously been done at the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London, came up with the idea of reinstating the two courtyards and combining them into one. They do this by lowering and gently ramping them so that they join up beneath this spine, originally intended to have an obvious main entry point punched through its floor.

Despite their attempts to squeeze the cyclists round the edges of this aperture, there was no getting round the fact that the design would have made a pinch-point on this busy route. The public objected: Cruz y Ortiz had to give way. Instead, they made four smaller entry points, two on either side of the passageway in the inner corners of the courts. From these, by stairs or elevator, you descend to the lowered main floor, a world of polished Portuguese limestone.  The manner of your entry seems inadequate, somehow, but there’s no arguing with the effect that the architects have created, at huge cost and engineering head-scratching.

This being the Netherlands, which starts off at or below sea level, any kind of excavation immediately fills with water. The ground is not stable: they could not remove too many of the timber piles on which all Amsterdam is built , or the whole building could have collapsed inwards. Dutch maritime ingenuity pulled it off – including casting the floor with a great thickness of a kind of concrete that sets underwater. Divers checked it was good, and only then could it be pumped out. It had to be firmly anchored, as the surrounding water would always seek to drive the buoyant resulting tank upwards. It had to be structurally separate from the original building, which is very gently subsiding. Meanwhile the spine wing with the greatest works of art as well as the cycle thoroughfare in it, having had the ground removed beneath it, has turned into a bridge, another mighty work of keyhole engineering where no movement could be tolerated. So hats off to the engineers, Arcadis. Small wonder, though, that the city authorities had trouble finding a contractor brave enough to undertake the museum-rebuilding task, another factor in the long-delayed execution of the project.

Meanwhile the two Antonios, Cruz and Ortiz, got to work making their excavated tank look like architecture. This glistening limestone domain with its orthogonal eruptions works well, but doesn’t quite make the visual connection between the two courtyards beneath that awkward cross-wing. You have to get quite close to it before you realise that the big space continues the other side. It’s a kind of pedestrian underpass which also reminds you a little of railway station concourses.  This is perhaps slightly unfortunate since Cuypers, as well as being famous for Catholic churches, also designed Amsterdam Central Station. Dutch stations at this period were big on Semper-influenced decoration.  As I walked round the restored Cuypers interiors up above - in particular the Voorhal or Great Hall with its stained glass windows, improving texts, riotous patterning and allegorical wall painting - I was also reminded of the more neo-Renaissance main hall of Groningen station up north, built at exactly the same time as the Rijksmuseum by Cuypers' rival Isaac Gosschalk. I would not have been surprised to hear bing-bong platform announcements in the Rijksmuseum.

Back in the big concourse – leading to a large auditorium one way, and a mezzanine café over a shop the other – Cruz and Ortiz have made sure not to repeat one of the bad mistakes of Norman Foster’s British Museum Great Court in London – its harsh, echoing acoustics. They have suspended what they call “chandeliers” beneath the glazed roofs – each made of three concentric rectangular white cage-like structures.  These serve a visual purpose – to lower the apparent height of the space, restore the proportions lost through excavation, and carry lighting – but they also contain sound-absorbent material, which is also present in panels filling unwanted window apertures around the courts. These measures are a bit ponderous but they work: there is none of the British Museum hubbub and clatter here.

While within the courts the limestone is pulled vertically into a number of structures, ranging from elevator towers and staircases to ceremonial arches, outside the front it erupts into two new buildings: one the angular new Asian pavilion, set in a water pool, the other the Education Centre. Neither is stand-out architecture: restraint – unlike the look-at-me white carbon-fibre bathtub extension of the nearby Stedelijk modern-art museum, by Benthem Crouwel - was the key. Although symmetrically placed, one to each side, the new twin buildings at the Rijksmuseum are alike only in their pale cladding material, chosen to contrast with the red brick and dark slate of the original. The Asian pavilion is also an iceberg-building: much more of it lies beneath the pool than you see above it. The pool – not yet filled when I was there – promises to give the new building a Zen quality but maybe also serves as a reminder of the aqueous underworld here, ready to burst upwards at any moment.

In the rest of the museum, Cruz and Ortiz take a back seat to the interiors work of Wilmotte and the restored Cuypers decoration – plus a couple of new starry ceiling-paintings in two corners by British artist Richard Wright, clearly related to earlier work he has done at the Dean Gallery (now Modern Two) in Edinburgh, but picking up on Cuyper’s feverish decoration as well.  Wilmotte, trying to calm everything down, coats all the hanging walls in various shades of grey – darkest at the bottom, lightest at the top of this four-level building. Which, this being a strictly chronological hang from 1100 at the bottom to 2000 at the top, is also a chromatic timeline.  The darker backgrounds work best, especially in the 17th century “Gallery of Honour” where Rembrandt’s great Night Watch painting, concluding the sequence, is shown to great effect. It’s the only one of the 8,000 works in the building to have been returned to the position it previously occupied. The artificial lighting scheme, by Philips, is very good. As are Wilmotte’s frameless optically-true glass display cases. A shame he took his grey paintbrush to so much of Cuyper’s vaulted brickwork downstairs, though.

The overall impression is of a brute of a place being made to work as a modern art museum despite all the obstacles that the original architect threw up. Outside, the building is strangely tentative compared to its English relatives, the earlier Oxford University Museum by Deane and Woodward and the full-on fantasy Gothic of George Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras Station hotel in London. Inside, Cuypers made some great superscale spaces – though not necessarily great places to show art in.  Even with all the efforts of Wilmotte, the exquisite little Vermeers in particular seem to be floating in an enormous void.  Only down in the cellars and up in the attics, where they have consigned the 20th century work, do you finally feel you are getting intimate with the art.  Up on top, the pairing of a First World War biplane with a Mondrian, for instance, is inspired.

In the end, despite all my reservations, it felt good. Perhaps this is because of the great variety of different gallery spaces within this hulking building. Perhaps because those big linked courtyards counteract the sensory overload, allowing you to relax and breathe (even with those slightly alarming metal cages hanging over your head). But mostly, let’s be honest, because of the incredible work on display. Besides, there’s something crazily admirable about a civic cultural building that you can walk or cycle right through and otherwise ignore completely if you wish. Welcome back with all your faults, the uniquely eccentric Rijksmuseum.
The Rijksmuseum: