Text description provided by the architects. In general, we like to believe that our buildings are somewhat opaque, that they are not obvious or that they don’t share the diagrammatic features of many other architectures. The Atelier Building aspires to be one more sample of this approach. Not by choice, we have frequently had to intervene upon existing buildings or insert new ones in challenging historic environments. In the case of the Atelier Building, we had to deal with both situations at the same time. We followed our usual method: not to use juxtaposition or contrast as the sole mechanism—a very common way to approach this problem—but to merge the new architecture with the existing one, aiming to obtain a different entity and to make it emerge as naturally as possible.
Obviously, at a certain point, we thought of transferring some of the formal traits or working with the same materials that will be used in the other new buildings that will complement the Rijksmuseum to the Atelier Building. In other words, we were tempted to extend “our hallmark” beyond the museum to the other side of Hobbemastraat. However, we understood that the project offered a new, different opportunity and we were interested in discovering it.
In short, the project has been carried out along a variety of guidelines. On the one hand, we have incorporated what we used to call “the Villa”, the section of the existing building that was maintained—the old “Veiligheidinstituut”. On the other hand, complying loosely with the regulations of building codes, we have tried to create an easily recognisable silhouette that helps identify the building despite the discontinuous perception of it that one may have from the Museumplein.
Thus, a new building of extreme functional efficiency has eventually emerged, which is “obsessed” with opening up to the northern light and—with “the Villa” as its origin—reaches Honthorststraat to the south with a meaningful façade. However, a more detailed explanation is called for.
The Atelier Building, which accommodates workshops where different restoration activities are carried out, is an important element in the general renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Given the fact that the Museum’s main building will be dedicated solely to display the collection, a new location has been deemed necessary for its other former uses. Out of this need arises the construction of the Atelier Building, a specific building to house the various workshops of the Museum, where paintings and furniture, textiles and models of boats, work upon paper as well as silver and porcelain objects are restored.
Along with the workshops of the Rijksmuseum, the building also houses the workshops of the ICN (the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage) and even classrooms of the University of Amsterdam where the different restoration techniques are taught.
In short, this is a complex and very demanding program, which calls for strict security measures and the high specialisation of the different departments with varying air-conditioning and artificial lighting needs. The use of natural light, however, was a must. Northern light was required in each and every one of the rooms, it being one of the factors that has most significantly contributed to the final shaping of the building.
In the entire New Riiksmuseum plan, the Atelier Building constitutes one of the new structures to be built with independence from the main building. There are two other ones, the new Asian Pavilion and the Study Center. The latter is actually a small building that will contain all the non-public entrances to the Museum. The design for both pavilions offers many similarities, both material and formal—they will be built using the same stone and given a certain calligraphic freedom in accordance to their role of pavilions—folies—in a garden.
For a while we toyed with the idea of turning the Ateliergebouw into a third element of the same family, which would have unified all the new interventions that were linked to the renovation of the Rijksmusem in this part of the city. Further consideration of the Atelier Building’s unique character made us reject this idea so that, in the end, it was approached as an independent project, subject to the very specific influences of its immediate environment.
No matter how much sense it might have made to make the Atelier Building acquire the shape or the character of the building complex that makes up the Musem, we decided to choose a closer contextual approach and opted for the integration of the building within its block, even if this made it more anonymous.
The Atelier Building has been constructed on a lot close to the Museum itself, on the other side of Hobbemastraat. On the block, the lot had façades facing two streets, Hobbemastraat to the north and Honthorstraat to the south, and was surrounded by other buildings, all of them freestanding and made out of brick. To the west, there is the Manheimer Villa, a residential building that accommodates the Museum headquarters, and two less relevant ones that hold offices. To the east lies a grand building dating from the end of the XIX century, the Zuiderbad, which is actually Amsterdam’s first public swimming pool and yet one other building of the same period that houses an old fire department. With the exception of the two office buildings, all these buildings are, to some extent, protected monuments, a fact that will have its importance in defining the volume of the new project. In fact, one of the many aspects of the complex building code we were subject to consisted in maintaining the side view of the Zuiderbad from the Museumplein.
Half of the plot upon which we were to build was occupied by the building of the Veiligheidsinstituut (Safety Institute), which was founded in 1917 and probably was a pioneer in its field. The building, a project by Cuijpers, the same author of the Rijksmuseum and so many other significant pieces of Dutch architecture in those days, presented a clear twofold organisation. On the one hand, it opened up to Hobbemastraat with a volume of residential nature —in fact, it was renamed “the Villa” from that moment on— that housed the administration facilities of the institution. On the other hand, the workshops where materials and elements that improved safety conditions at work sites were tested were adjoined to the aforementioned wing.
Even though the entire building was protected as a monument, we were eventually able to maintain only “the Villa”, which is much more precise in its architecture, while tearing down the workshops, which were the section of the building with a weaker and more doubtful layout.
The organisation of the new building
As it has been pointed out, a building code demanded that the view of the swimming pool building (Zuiderbad) from the Museumplein be maintained. We were glad to accept this requirement, not so much because that view—of the sides and back—truly mattered but because it made us subdivide the new body of the building in two. This was probably not the best option as far as the functioning of the building was concerned, but it allowed for the construction of two smaller volumes, closer in their size to the others that occupy the square, thus enabling us to insert the building within its surroundings. This is how the new group becomes subdivided into three parts, the first being “the Villa” on Hobbesmastraat, the part that remained from the original building, and the two new volumes, the second of which reaches Honthorstraat toward the south. All of this is joined together by the lower levels and the basements, which are even interconnected by a tunnel with the Museum’s storage rooms on the other side of Hobbesmastraat.
Above the basement level, the ground floor spreads through the building from the main entrance, which coincides with the former Veiligheidsinstituut. In the Villa building the more public uses are grouped together, the offices and the meeting rooms. The canteen for the Museum’s employees is on the top level. Between the Villa and the new building—that is, between the existing and the new architecture—a transition space is opened up, a high-ceiling hall lit from above. Beyond that point, a sequence of security checkpoints prevents unauthorised people from entering.
The ground floor crosses the entire building, and to the south, towards Honthorstraat, the loading area appears. The longitudinal circulation axis connects to staircases and elevators, some of which are huge. In the area between the two new built volumes, where overhead lighting appears once again, the employee rest area is placed.
The upper levels of the two new buildings hold an array of workshops along a corridor that, because of its off-centered position, allows for different depths. The top floors—once again with overhead lighting—are set apart for the painting restoration workshops.
The material, the new and the ancient; the northern light and the building’s outline. From the original decision to interpret the Atelier Building as independent from the rest of the Museum complex, and thus as a challenge in itself, rose quite naturally the following decisions with regards to our choice to explain the process for shaping the building as a sequence of interlinked decisions—a choice that, despite not being perfect, was perhaps desirably didactic.
In this way, the volume became subdivided into three parts, of a size similar to that of the neighboring buildings. However, if those three volumes constituted a unique building, it became obvious that the two new buildings had to be made out of the same material (brick) as the existing one (of the Villa). The new had to coexist with the old avoiding any sort of complacency or contrast. Such was the logical conclusion, in this case a consequence of the situation rather than one of the stylistic premises that we have defended on other occasions.
There is one more thing: the required orientation to the north of all of the rooms in the building becomes the instrument that definitively gives shape to it. On the one hand, this is achieved by means of the cross section, in which it is not difficult to identify a unique outline beginning on the roof of the Villa and continuing in the connecting atrium and in the saw-toothed roof that brings northern light into the top floors. Consequently, a broken outline stars at the Villa, spreads to the south over the saw-toothed roof and dips down and reaches upward until it reaches Houthorstraat, where the building presents a rear façade of no lesser significance. In a sort of automatic way, the several northern and southern façades appear covered in zinc, the same as the roofs (a coy, covered up Basel Train Station).
The goal has been to give a sense of unity to a fragmented volume and to turn its outline into an easily recognisable gesture, given that its perception, among the other buildings that complete the block, is necessarily discontinuous. The artifice of orienting the openings of the different rooms to the north by using the same, somewhat inelegant technique that is so frequently used in beach apartments so as to allow a partial (and not a very honest at that) view to the sea is added to the will of giving the building intensity and, therefore, to make it recognisable. By unifying all the windows in the different levels with the use of large white aluminium frames, the building becomes more monolithic, more of a whole and more recognisable for those who might contemplate it.
Whereas so many decisions were left to common sense—or to reality—and where the modesty of its location in the block has derived into a building which accepts certain anonymity, architecture, however, can here speak boldly. Architecture is a highly media-focused art and it is this feature which is a large part of its essence. Much of all of this has occurred in this case: very few times in our career has a building been accepted with such a degree of approval by its users, who are not an undemanding public. The work of an architect consists mainly in aspiring to this.