A Mirror on Museumpark

Ulf Meyer
27. October 2020
Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode

Two of the Netherland’s most prominent architecture firms are reshaping Rotterdam’s Museumpark: MVRDV is giving the city an art depot that looks like a bowl; and Mecanoo is renovating the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, whose art will be stored in the depot. Ulf Meyer visited Rotterdam to take stock of the changes.

There was a time in the 1970s when mirror-glass façades fit the architectural zeitgeist. Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles was a prominent example, while the opening credits of each episode of the TV series Dallas featured the Hyatt Hotel, designed by Welton Becket. A little less innocent was I.M. Pei and Henry Cobb’s use of mirror glass for the John Hancock Tower (now 200 Clarendon) in Boston, where the architects argued that the reflective facade would make the tallest tower on the skyline take on the appearance of the sky, and thus become “invisible.” When glass sheets fell down from the tower, the illusion of a facade reflecting its surroundings fell apart.

Dutch cities like Amsterdam or Delft are traditionally brick cities and not at all “shiny.” But since Rotterdam is dominated by (fading) postwar architecture and urbanism, it feels as if it could use some architectural glitz or glam once in a while. Ever since the German army leveled the port city in World War II, Rotterdam's inferiority complex with Amsterdam has resulted in some of the greatest contemporary buildings. In the city's Museumpark are some of the finest museums in the BeNeLux countries, including Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s Kunsthal and Het Nieuwe Instituut (formerly NAi), the curatorial heart of the Netherland’s architecture and design scene, designed by Jo Coenen. The main anchor is the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, nicknamed “The B,” which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation handled by Mecanoo.

"The B" on the right and the new Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen on the left. (Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

Smack in the middle of these cultural institutions sits a new, giant bowl-shaped building, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, designed by MVRDV after winning a 2014 competition. Although MVRDV can look back at a career spanning almost 30 years and three continents at this point, they are still considered the “younger” architects of Rotterdam. They do not dislike their label of being the enfants terribles of the local architecture scene. They are not known for under-stated buildings, but rather bold and courageous ones such as their Markthal, now a must-see building in downtown Rotterdam. 

Although MVRDV claim the mirror-glass cladding for the depot-bowl was chosen to “reduce its visual impact,” it is an eye-catcher. The bowl is clad in curved mirror-glass panels all around and thus acts like a giant mirror in which the whole city and its skyline can be seen. The 1,664 glass panels reflect people, clouds, and vegetation alike. Because of the curvature, the building creates images of its surrounding that are reminiscent of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago. There, the bean shape and polished stainless steel surface make for irresistibly deformed photo opportunities for travelers posting to Instagram. The same phenomenon now occurs in Rotterdam, but more so when the depot opens to the public in 2021. Like every other building in the Netherland’s second city, the new art depot is a fancy, shiny attention-getter.

The mirrored art depot seen from the pool in front of Het Nieuwe Instituut. (Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

But at least as exciting as the shiny façade should be the concept and content of the new museum depot. Just like the Schaulager that Herzog & de Meuron designed in Basel in 2003, this “show-storage” is not a conventional museum but a sort of publicly accessible art warehouse. It houses the vast art collection of the neighboring Museum Boijman van Beuningen and also contains areas for art maintenance and studios for curators. There are five "climate zones" in which artifacts can be stored according to their temperature and humidity requirements.  

Walking through a labyrinth of non-curated art displays can be tiring and disorienting, so a central atrium — 30 meters high, filled with overlapping, Piranesi-like suspended staircases and suspended glass display cases, and surrounded by repositories and display spaces — provides orientation inside the bowl. Art is all around. There are illustrations and displays with information about the collection and visitors can look into the repositories through windows. A transparent express lift gives visitors just a very brief glimpse of the collection they are missing as they ride, free of charge, to the roof garden. Security is understandably strict. 

The bowl is topped by a plus-shaped restaurant and event space. (Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

Today's museum experience is based on visitors gaining insights into how the museum cares for and maintains its collection. In museums, art has usually been presented as if on a silver platter: curated and framed, following a dramaturgy and narrative. Just like until a generation ago, newspapers pre-screened news and assorted them, while nowadays that practice is seen as patronizing by many who prefer to sort through the internet’s “ocean of trash” in search of pearls. The same trend is embodied in this new type of art space that was first given form with the Schaulager. The new Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen will make “The B” the world’s first museum to have its entire collection publicly accessible at one time. The new public art depot is the pinnacle of this idea of a museum as an un-edited “treasure box” — not a silver platter, but quite literally a silver bowl full of 145,000 objects!

It's not all art, though, because after the art route comes a reward: the roof is crowned with 75 tall birch trees and a restaurant, complete with panoramic views back over the city. The visual reverse angle reveals a 360-degree view of the Museumpark and the Rotterdam skyline, which visitors first saw as a distorted mirror image when they approached the depot.

Inside the depot's atrium. (Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

The idea behind MVRDV’s depot is not only to increase the pulling power of Museumpark but also to attract private collectors to donate their works. This was the root of “The B.” When the museum first opened back in 1849, it only housed the collection of private collector Frans Boijmans, later to be joined by the one of businessman Daniel van Beuningen. Their collections ranged from medieval to modern, with a focus on Dutch artists: Rembrandt, Pieter Breughel, Hieronymus Bosch, and of course Vincent van Gogh. The collection has been growing for 165 years, and recently only eight percent of the collection could be on view at any one time. It is the most visited museum in Rotterdam.

The idea of the new depot is to let patrons experience the conservation and management of artworks and to reveal to visitors how an art museum functions — not to confront them with a finished product. The depot offers rare looks inside a hidden world, a backstage visit to the “engine room” of the art world. That concept changes people’s perception of art like Bertolt Brecht once changed the illusionistic character of theatre. It suggests, in a way, that art exhibitions are “boring,” like the making of a film is more interesting than the actual movie.

On top of the art depot that will open in 2021. (Photo © Ossip van Duivenbode)

The look behind the scenes mainly reveals technical and practical aspects of working with art in an unmediated exposure. The architects want visitors to follow their intuition and explore for themselves what interests them the most. Visitors can peep inside workshops, research facilities, and treasure chambers. The paths also raise questions such as “Why do people collect?” and “How do they collector’s tastes and preferences develop?”  

Roaming visitors can use night vision devices to look inside dark repositories, and even use remote control cameras and binoculars to take a close-up look at the art and to look over the shoulders of specialists. Each of the six floors of the depot has such exhibition spaces, while only the ground floor also contains an art handling: a packaging, conditioning, quarantine, loading and unloading section, where each objet d’art is conserved, restored and prepared for transport and exhibition.

Mecanoo's sketch of Museumpark and the expanded Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. (Drawing: Mecanoo)
Catalyst and Connector

MVRDV is not the only prominent Dutch architecture firm working in Museumpark. Mecanoo, from Delft, are currently designing a new wing for the main Museum Boijmans van Beuningen next door. In the generations since 1849 the museum had become a maze, so Mecanoo are creating a clear ensemble with good logistics. The existing wings designed by Adrianus van der Steur (1935) and Alexander Bodon (1972) will be restored because of overdue maintenance and asbestos construction. Mecanoo is adding a public passage that meanders between the wings from the city in the front to the Museumpark in the rear in order to make the museum more extroverted. The passage starts on Museumparkstraat with a new entrance and shop, then the new wing will fan out into a foyer on the Buitenhof. This new passage also creates a new park side entrance in the shape of a pavilion with a double-height exhibition space. Thrifty visitors can experience art in the passage from above without buying a ticket. The new halls are mostly organic in shape with various heights and daylighting systems.  

The youngest expansion of the museum, which Ghent's Robbrecht en Daem completed in 2003, has been deemed “problematic spatially and from a technical perspective” by Mecanoo, who will renovate it. Mecanoo’s aim is to make the Bodon and Van der Steur wings more “visible” and the walking routes clear and logical, but they do not care too much about their contemporaries’ work: The Van Beuningen-de Vriese Pavilion designed by architect Hubert Jan Henket in 1991 will be “disassembled” and relocated. It is a beautiful structure, designed by the founder of DOCOMOMO, and it fits well into its surroundings. While the exact site for relocating the pavilion has not been determined, it will remain in the Museumpark.

A new Museumparkstraat entrance envisioned for "The B." (Visualization: Mecanoo)

Mecanoo want to make the museum “easy to experience from the park.” While the architects from Delft claim that their wing will be “transparent” and “organic” and “inviting” it does introduce a whole new design vocabulary. The new curved wing will be more than 120 meters long and feature a library, galleries, and a “digital depot.” Windows of varying widths are supposed to structure the long facades and give views inside the museum, competing with MVRDV’s idea of a museum for passersby. When the reimagined Museum Boijmans van Beuningen opens in 2026, the mirror-glass bowl next door should already be an established photo spot for tourists — who may or may not care about art at all.

The organic flow of the new spaces designed by Mecanoo. (Visualization: Mecanoo)

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