Magazine article Artforum International

Facing the City: Todd Reisz on Benthem Crouwel's Stedelijk Museum Expansion

Magazine article Artforum International

Facing the City: Todd Reisz on Benthem Crouwel's Stedelijk Museum Expansion

Article excerpt

For some reason, monumental buildings do not work in Amsterdam. ... The monumentality of Amsterdam exists only in the heads of its inhabitants, not on the streets.--Geert Mak, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (1994)

GEERT MAK, a popular Dutch history writer, is often criticized for ironing the wrinkles out of history, but his antimonumental gloss on Amsterdam's architecture has been affirmed twice in the past year. First, the shamelessly iconic Eye Film Institute opened to mixed reviews in April. Then in September came the new addition to the Stedelijk Museum, which houses Amsterdam's modern and contemporary art collection. Except for two brief reopenings in the old building, the museum had been closed since 2004, finally returning last fall after a series of increasingly unbearable delays, caused by circumstances such as structural miscalculations, a bankruptcy, and an out-of-control soccer celebration that damaged the construction site. During the institution's opening days, media coverage focused on the fact that the museum and its art were back, while the new building itself was often politely sidestepped. Given that the first renderings of the design had appeared almost a decade ago, in 2004, Amsterdammers had had time to become desensitized to the proposal, viewing it as more mundane than monumental. "They call it a bathtub," residents would say to visitors, and indeed the hulking, fiberglass-smooth form warrants little more description.

"They" turned out to be the building's designers, a team of architects led by Mels Crouwel (son of famed Dutch typographer and designer Wim Crouwel) of the Dutch firm Benthem Crouwel. Crouwel's embrace of the bathtub moniker may have been an attempt to appropriate the nickname before someone else could turn it into a slur. His caution, however, was unnecessary, at least at home. While it might seem reasonable to ask an architect to take responsibility for imposing such an uncompromising form on the city, the Dutch press has not pushed Crouwel to do so. Architectural reviews from outside the Netherlands, such as those in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, have been far more forthcoming (the latter branded the building's shape "ridiculous"). Foreign reviews have tended to describe the Stedelijk as the latest--and maybe last--victim of the febrile days of institutional icon-building.

But if at first it seems easy to dismiss Crouwel's design as an endnote to a closed book, it's difficult to make the accusation stick. To begin, the bathtub silhouette doesn't meet the expectations one might have of an icon. It's a strange form, yes, but it doesn't lend itself to rebranding as the museum's logo--its vexing whiteness reads more like an erasure than as a form, and there is no obvious vantage point from which it can be taken in entirely or reduced to a static image by the tourist's camera. Nor did Amsterdam need an iconic building to "turn itself around" or "get on the map." As a modestsize city that attracts more than twelve million visitors a year, Amsterdam has trouble enough accommodating tourists already. In fact, planning for cultural institutions has recently been focused on spreading tourist attractions to the outer reaches of the city, beyond the famous canals. A visit to the Eye Film Institute requires a ferry ride, the new Hermitage satellite (a terrific renovation of a former nursing home) sits on the other side of the Amstel River, and the renovated National Maritime Museum can be accessed from the train station without entering the city center. If anything, commissioning an iconic addition to the Stedelijk seemed counter to the city's larger plan for shifting visitors away from the center.

It also seemed counter to the character of the institution itself. While some in the city's cultural elite wanted a topmuseum, implying that they envisioned the Stedelijk joining the ranks of the blockbuster museums, such a gambit would have required going up against the likes of the Pompidou, Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art. …

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