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Dutch Museum Reopens After Celebrated Makeover

Exterior rendering of the Rijksmuseum, the Netherland's national art museum
After more than 10 years of renovation, the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’s national art museum, has finally fully reopened to the public in Amsterdam. © Pedro Pegenaute/Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

After a challenging renovation that included underground construction conducted well below the water table, an expanded and updated version of the Netherlands’ cherished national museum has reopened.

April 23, 2013—In 1999, the Dutch government, wishing to bestow a gift upon the Dutch people, agreed to donate 100 million Dutch guilders (U.S.$55 million) toward the renovation and expansion of the country’s national museum, the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam. Now, four and a half years after the project was scheduled for completion, the public can finally enjoy the full splendor of the historic landmark.

The challenging renovation work on the museum wrapped up last summer, and the museum’s collection was reinstalled early this month. The Rijksmuseum reopened to the public on April 13. In addition to the gift from the government, the €375 million (U.S.$489 million) restoration was financed by the museum along with the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science.

The finished museum will display more than 8,000 art and historical objects—a small fraction of a collection numbering hundreds of thousands of paintings and other objects—in 80 galleries, cataloging Dutch art from the year 1200 to the present. The renovation called for the reorganization of the museum’s entire collection, except for Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which remains in its original position at the center of the museum, at the end of a long corridor called the Gallery of Honour.

The museum was originally designed and built between 1877 and 1885 by Pierre Cuypers, in a deft merging of Gothic and Renaissance styles. Not surprisingly, the museum has seen many renovations over the years. Part of the goal of this project, led by the Seville-based architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos, was to sweep away poorly utilized space, improve security and climate systems, and bring the museum into the 21st century. The aging museum, says Antonio Cruz, a principal of Cruz y Ortiz, was “not prepared for the use of the museum of today. The museum of today has to be prepared for many, many, many visitors per year. They need a big hall for receptions, they need [an] auditorium, they need shops, a cafe—so many different things that [older museums] don’t have.” 

Architects at Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos opened up two interior courtyards at the Rijksmuseum

Architects at Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos opened up two interior
courtyards at the Rijksmuseum, replacing a warren of dated
exhibition spaces with grand new entry halls.
© Pedro Pegenaute/Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

To address those shortcomings, Cruz y Ortiz decided to clear out the museum’s two courtyards—which had been covered up with a warren of exhibition spaces in the 1950s and 1960—and create new basements underneath the courtyards, providing not only room for an auditorium and cafe, but also a grand public space from which visitors can orient themselves as they enter the vast building.

“During the 20th century, they built up the courtyard, and you don’t feel like you were in a special point,” says Cruz. “Previously the building [was] like a labyrinth in which you don’t know where you were. Now the building is more clear—it’s clear in which part of the building you are.”

But excavating the courtyards into Amsterdam, a city with a water table located just 80 cm below ground, proved quite the engineering challenge. “It has been quite a complex renovation process,” says Hannke Vuuregge, a spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Affairs, which owns the Rijksmuseum building. “But [dealing with water] was one of the biggest challenges, because, as you know, quite a large piece of the Netherlands is below sea level, so the ground water is quite high in our country.” As a result, he says, “A huge part of those courtyards right now is below groundwater level. Of course we had to keep the water out and keep the courtyards water free.”

The 128-year-old building is built on some 8,000 wooden piles that are 11 to 12 m long, 300 to 400 of them beneath the new construction in the courtyards. Strict regulations prevented engineers from replacing them altogether. “During the whole construction phase, we built a lot of basements underneath the building,” says Andre de Roo, the director of structural engineering in the buildings division of Arcadis, the international consulting firm hired to oversee the structural engineering of the museum’s renovation. The basements are located 6 to 7 m beneath the courtyards. “You have to make sure the water level doesn’t drop because you will cause damage to the building because the piles will start to rot.

“If you dig a hole, water comes in very quick,” he adds. “It’s not easy if you want to change something in a foundation. You cannot just dig a hole, put in a pump, and then fix it.”

Courtyard rendering

Engineers at Arcadis lifted the passageway in between the
Rijksmuseum’s renovated courtyards off its original foundation,
demolished the masonry columns beneath, and replaced them
with thinner columns. Visitors can now walk between the two
spaces. Courtesy of Arcadis

Much of Amsterdam has about 12 m of very soft topsoil above an impermeable layer, but that layer rests above sand. Arcadis weighed two options. The firm could place sheet piles so deep that they pierced the impermeable layer and then excavate the soft soil above it. But the impermeable layer isn’t present everywhere in the city, and even in those places in which it does exist, crews cannot dig too deep, or the water pressure from below would exceed the weight of the soil above, and the water would burst through.

“If you load something with 12 meters of soil, you can put a pile in it because it’s heavily compressed,” says de Roo. “But if afterward you take away the soil, your load-carrying layer will loosen up, will get weaker, and will cause settlement through the foundation.”

Instead, Arcadis used shorter sheet piles, down to roughly the level of the existing foundation, then dug out the top 1 m or so of soil, put in horizontal struts to help brace the site, and then dug out the rest of the space, leaving the water in place rather than trying to pump it out. The water kept pressure against the sheet piles, reducing deformation and the risk of damage to the building. Engineers then laid a new 1 m thick foundation using underwater concrete. As the concrete formed, it created a watertight barrier, de Roo says, and a “very rigid horizontal strut, which prevents sheet piles from moving inside. After that, you pump the water out, then you basically have an open space in which you build your basement.”

Government authorities allowed the engineers to proceed provided that the building settled no more than 5 mm. The building settled 4.5 mm.

Additionally, Cruz y Ortiz wanted to connect the two courtyards. There was just one problem: they were separated by a passage that ran the length of the building and served as a pedestrian and biking path through the museum, linking the old section of Amsterdam with its newer, late 19th-century “suburbs.”

The level of the lowered courtyards was 3 m below the level of the passage, so engineers had to determine a way to forge a connection beneath the passage. A basement beneath the passage had been built in the 1960s, de Roo says, by excavating the soil and casting concrete around the masonry piers. But the dimensions of the piers there were too large to make an easy connection between the courtyards.

So the engineers decided to use jacks to lift the passage off its original foundation and demolish the existing masonry columns underneath.

Interior rendering of a passageway which provides a path for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through the museum as well as an entry point to the restored courtyards

A passageway provides a path for pedestrians and cyclists to
pass through the museum as well as an entry point to the
restored courtyards. © Pedro Pegenaute/Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Thick columns, as wide as 2.5 sq m at bottom, were replaced by thin, 80 sq cm columns, which aligned with columns above, opening up the space beneath the passage and allowing a seamless connection between the two courtyards. A total of 28 columns were removed. It might have been easier to replace the entire foundation, but de Roo says this would have created long-term problems. “It is very complex,” he says. “If you would leave the passage on a new foundation it would go well for about 5 to 10 years, then you’d get differential settlements between new and old foundation. You can’t really avoid it.”

A magazine put out by the country’s government building agency notes that between 2006 and 2010, workers had to spend dozens of nights “listening” to the building—its creaks and groans—as work progressed on lifting the passage off its foundation, to make sure the work was proceeding as planned.

Arcadis also worked with the international consulting firm Arup, which oversaw the mechanical engineering, to keep new and modern air ducts from marring the visual spectacle of the restored museum. Instead of using central air-handling units, several small units were positioned around the building, which allowed the ducts to be smaller. Inside, the building’s large masonry columns had spare load capacity, so engineers drilled 30 by 40 cm cutouts within the columns to hide air-handling ducts, which bring in air from ground level and distribute it to the building’s first two floors.

Air for the upper stories is blown in from air-handling units located within steel trusses on the roof. Even these proved challenging. The trusses were part of the monument. The National Housing Ministry “would give a monumental value to each part of the building,” says de Roo. “[We] had to be careful to place air handling units in a very careful way, otherwise the monument committee would not allow it.”

Underground, the building is ringed by a 2 to 3.5 m wide corridor that houses generators and electrical equipment. Some of the corridors were widened to nearly 6 m to accommodate air-handling units. Engineers also built about 48 pipes underground, spaced 80 cm to 1 m apart, and threaded them horizontally between the subterranean wood piles—taking care not to touch the piles. These pipes bring in air from outside and carry air away from the courtyards.

In addition to the changes in the museum itself, the new complex features an array of additions. Cruz y Ortiz designed a freestanding structure, the Asian Pavilion, tucked into a courtyard just south of the museum, to house the museum’s collection of Asian art dating back to 2000 B.C.

The new courtyards and Asian Pavilion join a new atelier, opened in 2007, in a space that merges a new structure with an existing one, known as the Safety Institute, designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers. This space is for restoration and conservation training, research and scholarship. Designers also restored the historic Teekenschool, or Drawing School, to serve as a space for museum education. The Rijksmuseum also features a new public garden.

The Phillips Wing, the only section of the museum to remain open during the renovation, will now close for its own refurbishment.

Vuuregge notes that on Sunday, April 14, just a day after the museum opened, 14,000 visitors came to the Rijksmuseum. Before closing the museum was averaging about 1 million visitors per year; for the next year the museum anticipates doubling that. The project, she says, will “give a very new grand status to Amsterdam, to the Netherlands.”

De Roo, too, is pleased. “First of all personally I was born in Amsterdam, so for me it has a very emotional feeling as well,” he explains. “It’s a very complicated project, which for an engineer is very nice.”


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    In the 7th paragraph, starting with "But excavating...", the first name of the spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Affairs should be "Hanneke".
    Also, Hanneke is a female, so the last sentence of that same paragraph should read "she says".

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