Good design takes a soaking

by Hamish Keith / 14 February, 2013
An addition to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum that seems grossly out of time and place.
Nutty: Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum’s bath-like extension. Photo/Jannes Linders

In the 17th century, the Dutch maintained a commercial empire that stretched around the globe. Their warships patrolled as far away as Japan; they even called in on us briefly in 1642. Their ships were among the world’s best designed. As painters of the sea, they were unexcelled.

The Netherlands is on average 11m above sea level and more than 60% of its 16 million-plus inhabitants live below that. Clearly, they would have an attraction to water. Even so, it seems hard to explain why they would design an extension to the pioneering Stedelijk contemporary art museum in the shape of a bathtub.

But they have. Towering above Amsterdam’s Museumsplein and plugged into the side of the elegant 1895 brick Neo-Renaissance pile of the original museum is a giant white bathtub. No fanciful allusions here – its architect, Mels Crouwel, was the first to pin that name on it. All buildings, he explained in a video interview, have nicknames – “this is the bathtub”. It stands on four legs, its rim overhanging the square. Visitors go in and out roughly where the water would run down the plug hole.

The sad thing about this latest excess of architectural nuttiness let loose on an art museum is that, from the video, the interior works perfectly. Galleries move seamlessly between the old building and the new. The post-World War II Stedelijk set the benchmark for contemporary, anonymous white-box galleries, with interiors in which the art has the first and last word. In the 60s, the design of the Stedelijk was what all modernising galleries aspired to – Auckland Art Gallery included. Its elegant modernist catalogues were models for ours, which is a bit of an irony since the father of the bathtub’s architect used to design them.

I suppose Dutch gallery-goers can be thankful that once they are in the bath they can forget the structure. In that compact and elegant city, though, in normal life it will be impossible to ignore. To my eye, it seems a massive punch in the collective face of a city generally careful to an extreme about the impact urban design will have on what is in many ways a fragile metropolis. This addition seems grossly out of time and place.

When climate change emerged as a political issue a decade or so ago, the then Dutch Prime Minister was asked what his people would do if rising sea levels drowned his country. “Move to Germany,” he answered. Perhaps the Stedelijk has been designed as some kind of cultural ark.
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