Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
In the Museum Quarter of Amsterdam there is the unimaginatively named ‘Museum Plein’ – the Museum Place. No surprises that you’ll find museums here. Well, that’s what it’s all about: the Dutch are straightforward people. Well, that is when they’re aware that is; when they are, things are made very easy. Unfortunately, the kind of architects this breeds are unimaginative – something that is the direct result of a lack of awareness. They’re not alone in this, most of the worlds architects are the kind of people the world would be happier without.
When you arrive on the number 5 tram travelling towards Amsterdam’s Central Station, you’ll see a large grey something come into view. This is the new wing of the museum, and is decidedly modern. That is to say, it doesn’t fit in with the surroundings and is, in Prince Charles’ view, ‘a carbuncle’.
As you can see, there is an upper area that is a uniform grey with a plastic like appearance, beneath it are the standard-issue square windows that have been used for a century. For some reason architects still think this is a statement of newness. It certainly looks clean. Which, being Holland, it is because it they’ll all get a regular wash.
It is the smooth sides and gentle curved edges of this grey bulk – there is no architectural term for this lumpen form. Local wags saw this and immediately dubbed it “De Badkuip” the bathtub. No surprises there, because that is what it looks like from the outside. I can’t say what the architects thought of this, their conception of architecture is rarely focussed on what it looks like to others. They know what it’s supposed to look like, and since this is all they can imagine, cannot imagine anyone else thinking any differently. They’re not alone, the Americans do this a lot, assuming people will act in the way they do (1).
Having stood in admiration of this example of modern architecture, I turned to look in the other direction. There was something of a problem, though: my eyes had become used to its perceived size – that is to say, my mind had grasped the uniform grey side as being the size of a – well, you guessed it! the size of a bathtub. The result was that I lost my balance and I nearly fell over! What is dubbed a bathtub could better be described as an aircraft carrier. Well, a little one at least. Because the thing is fucking enormous. Only the fact that it has so little to establish this fact, one’s eyes are deceived into thinking that it is far smaller than its three storey height.
No doubt the planners loved its colossal scale, the intrepid nature of its form so resembling a sculpture. Well, one of those modern sculptures that say nothing. No doubt on paper and on the computer renditions it looked great. Well, that is the ‘disconnect’ is all about: you know you’re right, so it has to be.
To someone who actually looks at the finished result, considers it, and lacks the forethought to regain a bearing on one’s position… well, you know the rest now, don’t you? But then, it’s not really a problem because the Dutch are either headed for the door or they’re looking for the café. What the place looks like is as irrelevant to them as it is to the architects.
Because this is another manifestation of the gap which forms the disconnect: did any one of those planners or designers even cast one thought to what it looks like to anybody else? My guess is that they did not because such people – intellectual, evidence based thinkers – rarely give others a thought. If for the only reason that the people whose thoughts count are the very people who would agree that the thing was fantastic and there was nothing that could be improved. The intellectual thinker, in this respect, is always surrounded by this ‘gap’.
Inside The New Wing.
Make no mistake, the place is big. The ceiling of the atrium is now the bottom of the bathtub; it’s also two storeys in the air! The new wing doubled the Stedelijk’s original exhibition spaces; that it could have as easily tripled it is not an issue. Space is gleefully wasted. In the galleries themselves, there’s no real indication as to where you are, so there’s no indication that you’re in the new wing at all. It’s all white walls and pictures. It’s all so ‘samey’ that it becomes meaningless.
People need something to focus on if they are to know where they are, and ‘Het Valkhof’ museum in Nijmegen allows this with their exhibition spaces that open onto their own version of the walls of glass that every architect seems to have a proclivity for – yet few of them let you actually look through. In the case of the Valkhof, they are well used; in the case of the Stedelijk, they are wasted. Not that this bothers the Dutch because few of them are looking around them, they came to see pictures, electrically propelled marionettes that are pretending to be sculpture or whatever else, and they are looking at them. And nothing else whatsoever.
The only window in the wall of the Bathtub itself is a three metre wide opening – it looks like a screwhole from outside – inside it is enormous.
And yes, there is a downstairs. They dug it out to make more exhibition space, it doesn’t matter that you’re three storeys down because it’s white and electrically lit so that you’d not know the difference.
The problem for me was getting down there: there are stairs and below, a modest hallway. You see, I made the mistake of not doing as I was told. Sorry, doing what I should be doing. Sorry, doing what a Dutch person would do in those circumstances: concentrate on what you’re doing and nothing else whatsoever. That is to say, going down stairs and making sure your feet are in the right place. It doesn’t matter how many stairs there are, it matters that you are concentrating on them.
Because if you did what I did, that is to say, let my legs do the work they are intended for and gaze around me, you are going to be in trouble. This little hallway – and that is how it appears with a small door and white walls – is three storeys high. My brain took several moments to accommodate this fact, in which time my foot missed a step. There are three flights of stairs that are fifteen metres wide and are a genuine danger should anybody be daft enough to lose their balance, as I nearly did. Thankfully my brain was quick enough to return some order to the situation.
You see, the planners would have thought it good, and well within safety legislation and that kind of thing. But then, so was the Titanic. The planners never imagined that anything so large could be built – and the planners of the Stedelijk museum never imagined people who might find their museum more interesting than the work that they are engaged in. That is to say, going down stairs.
I guess the architects had imagined everybody thought as they did, knew what they knew. After all, they had climbed the ladders and scaffolding as it was built, they knew the dimensions and were used to them. Not only that but everyone had agreed that the safety regulations had been complied with. But then, they did that for the RMS Titanic too.
They all agree because none of them can imagine any possible point of disagreement. The RMS Titanic complied with the rules as they stood, the immoral action of the White Star line was that they knew there were not enough lifeboats for the passengers on the ship. But of course, the designers all knew that the ship was unsinkable, so the issue was judged a triviality.
However, back to the Bathtub. The architects were not even considering the effect the room might have on others. I found it disorientating. I am sure they, as intellectuals, would have ready arguments that it was my fault or that I should get better spectacles – or just attend to the job in hand and not fool about looking at the architecture. It will come as no surprise to you that their decisions are the correct ones, if only because they cannot perceive my difficulty – which means it simply does not exist for them. There can be no other reason for my problems than they were illusory on my part. We’ve been here before, but that does seem to be a recurring problem with modern thinkers and their bastard offspring, the architect.
(1) I spoke of this in my post “Slowly, Slowly, Catchee Monkey.”