By: Jackie Gase
Before our travels, we spent four weeks preparing ourselves for what we might see and experience in Amsterdam. We read on Dutch history, culture, art, architecture, and infrastructure using photography as our main source of visual evidence. I felt ready to go to Amsterdam and see in person what I had previously researched. However, while I said one thing in my blog posts prior to the trip, I felt something completely different as I experienced it in person.
As I stood in front of the Stedelijk Museum I found myself in awe at my reproachful reaction to it. In my previous blog posts I defended the extension design stating that the contrast between the original building and the contemporary add-on emulates the history of Dutch design and identity that embraces the past and the future. Now having visited the Stedelijk, I feel like my argument does not match my current feelings. Furthermore, that if a Dutch person read my blog post they would think that I produced an unenlightened essay that screams of my lack of familiarity with the design and museum. So, I want to repost what I wrote in my original blog about the Stedelijk Museum. Then, I want to pick it apart noting why my argument was perhaps ignorant, and how I look at the Stedelijk now with new eyes.
The original entrance to the Stedelijk museum has a neo-renaissance design. The recent extension features a modern glossy white covering that is likened to a bathtub. John Lewis Marshall states in his article that the addition is linked to the original building only just, and the juxtaposition of the old and new buildings collide starkly. While some do not like the combination of the two contrast structures, the design allows for the preservation of the past while showcasing the present.
The Netherlands are flourishing with modernist artist, architects, and designers producing work that showcases a new Dutch culture of design and style. However, this modernism progressed with traditional roots. Many design collectives speak of the influence traditional Dutch architecture and art have had on their own designs. They utilize and transform their reality, reorganizing and perfecting what is already there (Betsky & Eeuwens 156). So, instead of extending the Stedelijk Museum and mimicking the original building, the architects wanted to show a timeline of Dutch identity.
The original building was built with a neo-renaissance design, a style which drew inspiration from mannerist techniques or the baroque, an art style prevalent in sixteenth and seventeenth century Netherlands. The baroque was so prominent because of its clear and easily interpreted detail. The Dutch affiliated themselves with these aesthetics because of the physicality of the painting. The Dutch landscape was physical, there was no hidden meaning or hidden structures in the environment; “seeing is knowing is making” (Betsky & Eeuwens 206). However, the Dutch landscape also likened to Baroque art because of its integration of multiple classical forms to create one picture. Similarly, the Dutch landscape is an amalgamation of style, buildings, and nature all in one world. So, historically, the Stedelijk Museum aligned with Dutch identity and culture. However, today as a museum for contemporary art and design, and with Dutch identity and culture evolving, the design should reflect the current attitudes of the public. Therefore, the architect chose to produce a modern design with the original building.
The modern design reveals the presence of contemporary and modern art in the Dutch sphere. The white “bathtub” façade celebrates modernism and the effects of modernism in Dutch culture. The combination of the two designs reflects the changing cultural attitudes of Dutch art and design while also noting significance of the past and how former Dutch culture and identity is still noticeable today in a modernist world through redefinition and redevelopment of forms and ideals. Furthermore, the combination of the two designs replicates the entire Dutch landscape, an artificial place that is built using both traditional and modern modes of design and theory. So, while people think that the Stedelijk Museum does not look nice, it represents something larger. It celebrates and honors the history of Dutch identity and culture.
My first reaction to re-reading the excerpt was surprise at my emphasis on the stark contrast between the two buildings, that the architect and designer wanted to show two different styles to represent a past Dutch architectural style and identity with a new one. While from the exterior this can hold true, the interior is contradicting. Walking into the Stedelijk, while at the ticket counter before entering the actual museum part, you see the façade of the original building linked to the modern extension. Once you enter the museum, which is located in the old building, everything is cleansed of its traditional appearance. While you are in fact in the old building, the walls, ceilings, doors, almost everything is painted a stark white color mimicking a contemporary gallery style.
If the architect’s intent was to create a contrast between the old and the new, then the original building should remain in its original state instead of being transformed into a modern museum space. On a side note, one aspect that was not changed in the hallways are the floors. Nowhere does it state why this is, and it is particularly confusing because the rest of the floors, which are gallery spaces, in the original building were redone with classic gallery hardwood. Perhaps this was their way of keeping a little bit of the old in the new, or maybe it would have been too costly, or maybe too historic to change. In any case, the interior mocks the traditional. The intent clearly was not to showcase a timeline of Dutch identity in architectural styles. The intent was to define a current identity associated with contemporary and modern art.
The extension and the white-walled interior show the museums attempt at redefining who they are. They are not traditional. They are not Dutch history and their past. They are the innovators of our contemporary and modern art and architecture. They are the Dutch future. Because they could not destroy the building as it is historically protected and would undoubtedly receive major backlash, the museum did the next best thing. They produced an enormous structure that overshadows the original building and transforms the interior space into a modern exhibition hall, cutting ties from its aesthetic past.
My next faux pas was undermining the Dutch reaction to the structure. I state that while people dislike the modern design dubbing it a bathtub, it has more meaning than they can see. Who am I, as an outsider who has never visited Amsterdam and seen this structure in person, to disregard the local reaction to the extension? If the building is to speak to a current Dutch identity, doesn’t it make sense that the current population supports and associates themselves with it? The dislike of the structure that we encountered from locals like Pascal and the woman on our ARCAM tour proves that the Dutch do not see this structure as a physical representation of their current identity.
It’s not hard, as I have just proved, to make an uninformed analysis. Reading and research can only get you so far. Taking an immersive and experiential approach to evaluations may offer more insights than one can get from photographs and books. This is a reminder to stay cognizant and aware of undermining the impact of the experience and to value physical engagement with a culture instead of just a two dimensional one.
“New Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.” Benthem Crouwel Architects, http://benthemcrouwel.com/projects/new-stedelijk-museum-amsterdam/.
Wouters, Herman. “Stedelijk Museum.” NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/arts/design/amsterdams-new-stedelijk-museum.html.