Dutch renaissance

Simon Calder

It’s overdue and over budget, but the reborn Rijksmuseum leaves its admirers overjoyed

‘And about time too!’ – perhaps Queen Beatrix did not mutter these exact words under her breath as she re-opened the Rijksmuseum on 13 April 2013. Yet had she done so, no doubt a murmur of agreement would have rippled across the Netherlands. When the heartland of the nation’s heritage closed in 2003, the Dutch public (as well as guidebook writers like me) were assured the Rijksmuseum would re-open after three years of refurbishment.

The people, as it turned out, were to be deprived of their national treasure-house for a full decade. Unbelievably, transit passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport got to see more than the average citizen, since a smattering of artistic “greatest hits” were on show adjacent to pier E at Schiphol airport – there is still a presence there that I recommend you check out next time you check in. Meanwhile, the crown jewels around which the Rijksmuseum was created – including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch – shivered for years in a cramped annexe, the Phillips Wing, adjacent to the most depressing building site in Europe. As a visitor with a great fondness for Amsterdam, I felt the absence sorely. Year after year, I peered plaintively beyond the scruffy hoardings at the sorry sight of a 19th-century architectural triumph sitting out the new millennium.

Resuscitating the Rijksmuseum took three times as long as planned, and the original €45 million budget ballooned eight-fold to €375 million. Yet when the structure was finally unwrapped by Her Majesty, acclaim echoed the length of the Gallery of Honour and around the globe. “All is forgiven,” the world seemed to say.

So how did that happen, when the typical overdue, over-budget mega-project attracts only derision? What is it about this particular collection that all the disruption to traffic and tourism is so easily forgiven?

Let’s start with the Netherlands perspective. The original architect, Pierre Cuypers, was the second choice to build a home for the state’s art collection on the fringe of the city; the winner of an open competition to design a new gallery was German, whose nationality was deemed to disqualify him. So the Dutchman triumphed. He took a sombre and formal Romanesque design and enlivened it with English and French gothic flourishes. The result: a chateau for the arts that bestowed the south of Amsterdam with gravitas and grace.

Even more important than the grand structure was the inventory. The Rijksmuseum was the first proper home for the national collection of Golden Age art. Until it opened in 1885, the Dutch people had no proper shrine to the Old Masters – the painters who transformed art as dramatically as Dutch mariners changed the world during the 17th century. The Rijksmuseum provided a palace for the proper appreciation of the artists’ exquisite interpretations of life.

While the Louvre may boast the Venus de Milo, the French have no direct cultural connection with the figure; and the Parthenon Sculptures mean much more to the Greek people than to the British, in whose leading museum the “Elgin Marbles” happen to reside (for the time being, at least). But Holland’s state museum is devoted to the creativity of a small nation on the fringes of Continental Europe. Consequently, a Dutch citizen is likely to have a strong sense of ownership of the Rijksmuseum.

Perhaps that plurality of interest infecting the project helps to explain the extraordinarily convoluted process of commissioning that dogged this 21st century makeover from the outset. The Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz won the task of transforming the 19th century structure into a building that could comfortably handle millions of visitors and offer them a rewarding experience.

But when the Rijksmuseum doors slammed shut in 2003, the work of stripping the interior of its 20th century muddle and refreshing it for the new millennium had still not been assigned. Belatedly, the job was given to the French designer Jean Michel Wilmotte – and it is said that the inside outside interface immediately became a battleground. The hard-to-define boundary between interior and exterior – who decides if a window should be opened up or closed off? – was a proxy for clashes of personality and ideology.

The expression “get all your ducks in a row” is always wise when undertaking a big project, but it appears to have been overlooked by the Government Buildings Agency and the Rijksmuseum management.

Besides the late and controversial appointment of M. Wilmotte, the tricky business of choosing a builder was botched. A single construction firm tendered for the job. While hindsight shows its quote was both realistic and modest, at the time the figure was considered too high. Instead, the refurbishment was carried out through a jigsaw of subcontracts.Such was the lack of co-ordination that, on occasion, newly completed work was torn down so that a rival contractor could carry out their assignment.

Perhaps the story that sums up the whole inglorious drama concerns bicycle access. Partly, this is a result of a long-abandoned 19th-century vision to create a grand axis to emulate those in Paris and Berlin. Cuypers had originally been instructed to run a road right through the nation’s premier museum, via a tunnel that continued to serve as one of the main entrances to central Amsterdam well into the 20th century. Eventually cars and buses were diverted around the west side of the Rijksmuseum, but bicycles continued to race through it.

A plan to close this favourite short-cut, as part of the makeover, sparked a long-drawn out legal wrangle over access. The right of way has prevailed – and let’s hope generations of cyclists appreciate it, given that the row between cycling activists, politicians and architects undoubtedly added to the delay. A decade from now, I imagine, the phenomenon of a bike route cutting straight through one of Europe’s foremost art museums will once again be seen as an appealing combination of Dutch pragmatism and eccentricity, rather than a planning conflict that cost an absurd amount of time and money.

Yet outrage about all the mission creep has dwindled almost to nothing. The single lesson that anyone encumbered with a vast and complex task involving government money and public scrutiny should learn from the Rijksmuseum is: make the results brilliant.

Those who recall the 2003 version know what a mess successive administrations had made of Cuypers’ clean, clear vision. Interior walls were installed to allow more pictures to hang, the richly geometrical original decoration was painted over and the demands of millions of visitors created all kinds of messy compromises.

The remedy: restore the enchanting original fabric, delve beneath ground to provide the essential visitor facilities and commission dazzling new works that add precious dimensions to the Rijksmuseum. Richard Wright’s 47,000 hand-painted black stars on the ceiling of the antechambers on either side of the Gallery of Honour pay homage to Cuypers’ vision, and provide the perfect prelude to a hall like no other. Great works by Franz Hals, Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer draw you to the flanks, but The Shooting Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq – popularly shortened to The Night Watch – entices every visitor to wonder at the power, humanity and sense of theatre created by Rembrandt.

The Rijksmuseum has by far the world’s greatest collection of Old Masters, but now they can properly be seen for their quality even more than their quantity. The fading gem so beautifully restored to the original concept has seduced most visitors. And the buzz of bicycles helps the venue stay properly rooted as part of the fabric of the city.

Queen Beatrix can return whenever she wishes to pay her respects. The re-opening was her last duty before abdicating in favour of her son, Willem-Alexander. He took over a kingdom joyfully restored, and the world can celebrate.

About the author:

Simon Calder is an English travel writer, currently senior travel editor for The Independent newspaper


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