The architecture of the Rijksmuseum

You could argue that in the 19th century, when cities grew faster than ever, the two principle civilising architectural archetypes were the station and the museum. These were the architectural extravaganzas that allowed the new city centres to build a new image. With his designs for a super-eclectic Flemish renaissance/French chateau/English municipal/Gothic mash-up of the city’s two key 19th-century buildings, the Central Station and the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) redefined Amsterdam. Both station and museum were characterised by an omnivorously historicising style, their huge mass and, perhaps most importantly, their resolute publicness. The station brought to Amsterdam a huge public space beneath a glorious iron roof, and the Rijksmuseum acted as a ceremonial gateway to the newly expanded city via an arch that ran right through its centre.

That arch, which allowed cyclists and pedestrians a shortcut from the historic centre to the greener western part of the city through the museum itself, became a fiercely contested space during the planning of the Rijksmuseum’s decade-long renovation. Cleaving the building in two and separating galleries, the bicycle path represented both a curatorial nightmare and a gesture of openness that made it an indispensable symbol of the city’s accessibility.

Cruz y Ortiz, the Spanish architectural practice appointed in 2001 as project architect for the renovation, has maintained the quirky divided structure while bringing the building together with a simplicity that conceals extraordinary complexity. During the renovation, construction workers moved around the site in boats as they laboured below the water-table to unite the halves beneath ground. Two vast courtyards have been revived as twin lungs which allow the galleries to breathe. Light pours into marble-clad, clean spaces which seem to glow even under the greyest of skies and which draw the eye to the huge spans of the iron roofs that evoke Cuypers’ station.

The Dutch fought the Eighty Years War to defeat a Spanish empire defined by elaborate Baroque architecture, and, when they won, they replaced it with their own Protestant, famously self-effacing style. Now the tables have turned. Next door is the rebuilt Stedelijk museum, which reopened last year with a giant gestural bathtub extension by the Dutch architects Benthem Crouwel that stands in contrast to the minimal, nearly naked and elegant interventions of the Spanish architects’ work at the Rijksmuseum.

It has taken a decade and cost €375m but the restored Rijksmuseum is as sophisticated, minimal and understated as Cuypers’ original was grand, eclectic and overblown. The result is a building that still allows the public to cycle right through it, that not only looks wonderful but also works wonderfully well.

The Rijksmuseum reopens on April 13 after a 10-year closure

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