Case Study: Rijksmuseum

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Amsterdam is a historic city filled with museums that honour centuries of art, architecture that dates back decades, and a population that ensures that what was enjoyed by its ancestors will be enjoyed by its children. The world was reminded of these particular city traits with the recent opening of the famous Rijksmuseum, which has finally completed its 10 year renovation process.

After winning a design competition in 1876, Pierre Cuypers went on to design the original Rijksmuseum, which would open later in 1885. The museum was a landmark of Amsterdam, as it was considered a sort of gate to the city. Those who travelled to the infamous Dutch capital would have to enter via the cathedral, enjoying Cuypers’ design, which combined gothic and Renaissance elements, suiting a very 19th century European appeal.
In the 1950s and 60s, the museum was completely whitewashed. The walls and ceilings were painted over in white covering many of the beautiful wall illustrations. The tiles, too, were removed and replaced with wooden flooring. Though these initial renovations suited the radically contemporary design trends of its time, they disguised the original spirit of the museum. In the late 1990s, the government and city decided it was time for yet another renovation; however, this time, the renovation would serve as a restoration of sorts, bringing back Cuypers’ vision.
Leading architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz from Seville, Spain, took on the new challenge and were responsible for the overall renovation. The firm worked closely with Hoogevest Architecten from The Hague, and French interior architect Jean Michel Wilmotte.
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As for the lighting, the Rijksmuseum experimented with LED lighting, becoming the largest museum in the world to be completely lit by LEDs. Arup designed the lighting structures under the guidance of Rogier van der Heide, now chief design officer at Philips Lighting, while Beers Nielsen and Philips Lighting completed the lighting fixtures’ design and lengthy application.

The Dutch Government Buildings Agency managed the entire process, using tax money to foot the entire project’s bill, giving ownership of the museum to the people of the city.

Van der Heide explains: “The whole project was done with state money, meaning that it’s completely owned by everyone in this city…The team had to enhance the design to enable the city’s cyclists, who are now free to bike through the museum’s entrance gate, rather than around it. This is a symbol for how much the building is a part of Amsterdam.”

The recent renovation intended to restore the museum’s spirit, which hasn’t been enjoyed by museum goers for the past 50 years. According to van der Heide, the design team wanted to return to Cuypers’ design and spirit, giving the building back to the city. He went on to add: “The real success is the cohesion in its physical appearance, for the many various pieces of artefacts.”

Rijksmuseum holds around 7,500 artefacts, covering a space of 9,500m2. As each piece of artwork maintains its own soul, the design of each space had to meet specific criteria, like bringing out the various moods and styles, while also showing the rich palette of each painting. From room to room, the architects and designers mastered such cohesion starting with the entrance hall.

The entrance hall consists of grey marble flooring and columns, brick walls and an acoustic ceiling structure which also works as a modern chandelier. The giant, rectangular ceiling structure lights up the main entrance and follows the constitution of a Russian doll, where smaller, identical versions continue inward. The windows surrounding the entrance wall, while appearing transparent, actually block out bright light through the use of screens.

Beyond the entrance hall are numerous wings and rooms that house thousands of artefacts, grouped together by era and genre. The rooms are painted with natural, rich colours that don’t draw away from the paintings and sculptures, flowing from black to dark blue to beige, while the Great Hall and columns throughout the museum revisit the original decorative wall illustrations. The entire museum applies a palette of nearly 60 colours.

The Great Hall is the first main part of the museum to be entered before continuing through to the rest of Rijksmuseum. Concerning the grand feat in renovation, Tim Zeedijk, head of exhibitions at Rijksmuseum, discusses: “The wall illustrations took three years to restore and recreate the original decorations. They were worked on by art students who completed the illustrations by hand, line by line. The lines may be shaky, but at least they are alive. They Great Hall is meant to prepare visitors and the stained glass windows are the only parts of the museum that have been left untouched through the centuries.”

The hall’s flooring replaces the wooden planks that were put in place during the first renovation. Today, colourful tiles line up and down, complementing the museum’s overall colour range and inviting visitors in. Furthermore, the modern chandeliers that hang above provide an ideal contrast set against the old-style wall illustrations and classic architecture.

The round discs, which serve as contemporary chandeliers in the Great Hall, are thin and emit quite a lot of light, almost evoking glowing halos that hover close to the arching ceiling. The designers were told to keep them as thin as possible, while also under a certain weight. Now completed, they reach 2.8m in diameter and appear to have seamless, luminous edges.

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The rest of the museum’s lighting is a triumph on its own. Though design and consulting firm Arup laid out the creative work for the lighting fixtures, Beers Nielsen finalised the lighting design and Philips Lighting completed the detailing, fabrication and implementation.

The entire lighting process has contributed to this celebration of art from the main entrance to the exit. Philips ensured the best lighting possible for the artwork, while also agreeing to international standards of art preservation.

“Rijksmuseum asked us, ‘what is the best lighting for our museum?’ and we were responsible for finding the answer. They wanted something that could be understood as ‘natural light’, but that term could mean a lot of different lighting mediums. They also wanted a soft field of light framing each piece,” explains Bran Koerner, director of experience design, Iconic Projects Team, Philips Lighting.

Bringing clearer and more efficient light into the museum was difficult, yet, LED lighting was used throughout, and the design team managed a sharp, clean light.

Many challenges faced the Philips and Beers Nielsen teams, such as balancing shadows of different sculptures and minimising the blinding rays that that resulted from glass reflection. Essentially, they needed to figure out a way to perfect various ranges of light on different pieces in the same room.

While discussing the medieval section, Juliette Nielsen from Beers Nielsen explains: “The shadows behind the swords were a particular challenge, especially with the glass panels. If the shadows were too drastic, it could be too dooming, but finding a nice level of intensity could really enhance the collection. And with an LED colour range,  we can enhance the colours in paintings and add more depth.”

Zeedijk adds: “We chose LED lighting as it allows the art to be viewed in the best light possible, bringing out all the colours and details that the artist intended us to see.”

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Generally, museum lighting consists of incandescent halogen lamps for the interior space. These lamps may do a great job bringing out warm tones, but they neglect the green and blue hues, failing to truly bring out a painting’s full range of colour. The Rijksmuseum’s new use of LED’s allows for a more neutral while light that removes the heavy amber tint associated with halogen lamps.

Today, it appears as if all the artwork is in high definition due to the LED lighting and the new crystal glass panels, especially when it comes to the artefacts that are encased—the glass is so clear that it nearly provokes visitors to reach out and touch the pieces.

The renovated Rijksmuseum is a success. The restored walls and flooring bring back the once lost spirit. The colour palette brilliantly highlights each area of artwork, while maintaining consistency and coherence overall. The lighting brings a modern touch that isn’t imposing like the first renovation, but rather harmonious with the museum’s entire feel.

This article was originally published in Commercial Interior Design magazine in July 2013. Photo credit: Philips Lighting.

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