The main building of the Rijksmuseum has been closed for more years than originally anticipated, largely owing to the discovery of asbestos. When the doors finally reopen to the public in April next year, the museum will have been closed for ten long years. But it will all have been worth the wait, as anyone lucky enough to put on a helmet and join a guided tour for a sneak preview already knows. Whereas up to now you had to pound around in the mud among the struts and could just about make out the ceiling paintings high above you in the gloom, the museum is now bathed in light, the colours are fresh and delightful, and you instantly forget that it all took so long.

The design for the new museum was drawn up by the Spanish architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz. Ten years ago Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz opened a branch of their office in Amsterdam. Since then they have travelled to Amsterdam every month to discuss progress on the project. At the height of the renovation process, the office employed twelve people to ensure that the design by the head architects complied with all Dutch building regulations. In addition to the renovation of the main building, the commission included the design of a new 9000-m2 building containing studios across the street and two small pavilions: the 670-m2 Asian Pavilion and the 2800-m2 entrance building, both connected to the main building. The Asian Pavilion, featured on ArchiNed on 12 March this year, houses 365 Asian works of art. The entrance building contains the personnel entrance, service spaces and offices, as well as an energy centre located more than nine metres below ground level.

Muriel Huisman, partner and architect at Cruz y Ortiz Amsterdam, shows me around. She tells me that Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos do not like narrative architecture. These architects are not inclined to heighten the contrast between old and new. They do not use design and materials to clarify what has been added to the original building. Instead, they create new elements in the spirit of what exists. The round-arched niches high in the façades of the courtyards are, for example, now filled with reddish-brown acoustic panels that feature a motif of vertical stripes. The design and application of colour harmonises with the architecture of Cuypers, but the niches were originally plastered grey. ‘It’s fine if visitors wonder whether something is original or not,’ says Huisman. That, however, does not imply historicism, but building in a way that is so obvious it looks as if the new additions have always been there. The design motto for both the main building and the gardens is therefore: ‘Continue with Cuypers’. To achieve this, traditional craftwork takes pride of place in the renovation process, as illustrated by the Italian and Portuguese craftsmen who’ve been working on the site for years.

It remains to be seen whether this design approach has also been applied in the pavilions. These small structures are located on the southern side of the site, along with the Cuypers-designed extensions, the Philips Wing, the director’s villa and the Teekenschool. In terms of volumetric composition, the pavilions by Cruz y Ortiz differ considerably from the main building. In plan, the architects have used contrasting angles to create autonomous buildings that read as ‘small gems’ in the museum garden. In the choice of materials, the pavilions do harmonise with the main building, with their façades faced in the same Portuguese stone that is used to finish the courtyards.

One of the most visible changes has been the opening up of the covered courtyards. During the 1960s the building was extended into the courtyards to make up for the lack of space in the museum. Removing these later additions and opening up the courtyards from the passage not only creates a new, much more spacious entrance but also gives the museum a new heart bathed in daylight. Located underground, beneath the passage, are the ticket counter and the cloakroom. This underground zone connects the two courtyards to form a big public atrium. Even people who don’t want to view the collection can come here, enjoy a coffee and visit the museum shop. Faced in Portuguese stone, the vast atrium floor is three metres lower than the entrance level of the passage. The view of the courtyard façades from here is similar to the view of the townhouses in Amsterdam from the frozen water of the canals. The big scale is reduced by the insertion in each courtyard of a huge structure that fills the space above a height of nine metres. Only during the course of the project did this structure become an abstract chandelier featuring slats that help regulate the acoustic conditions. Located beneath the sunken courtyards is another underground layer containing spaces such as a lecture theatre and the restaurant kitchen.

Connecting the two courtyards beneath the passageway created a complication. In resolving the transition between old and new foundations, the designers had to transfer the existing forces carried by the existing foundations onto the new foundations. As a result, the forces from the passage are creatively transported to the foundations, making the grey pedestals beneath the huge buttresses decorative, since the actual forces are transferred to the columns to the rear. These padded feet from the 1950s and 60s were renewed to facilitate the east-west connection. Cruz y Ortiz initially argued for the removal of the remains of the buttresses because they were now structurally redundant. But the monuments committee considered their appearance to be decisive, and that is why 3-m-tall pedestals were added so that the buttresses do not float above ground.

The restoration of the main building, for which Cruz y Ortiz drew up the initial design, has been carried out under the supervision of Van Hoogevest Architecten. The Stichting Restauratie Atelier restored the exuberantly painted ornamental elements in the galleries, which had been completely concealed for decades beneath a layer of white paint. Cuypers originally wanted the ornamental elements to enhance the structural composition of the vaults. The collaboration between Cruz y Ortiz and Van Hoogevest is particularly successful in the solutions that incorporate the necessary mechanical installations into the original architecture and ornamentation scheme. After all, that was perhaps the biggest challenge: concealing the vast array of technical installations needed to both display and preserve the vulnerable work of art.

Canvasses by Georg Sturm, for example, which once adorned the entrance hall, were taken out of storage, restored and reinstated, but now with the necessary acoustic material mounted behind them. The brass top-lights in the courtyard windows now extract stale air. A circular stairwell that once housed a service staircase has become a shaft. And the floor in the entrance hall, which Italian craftsmen have reconstructed stone by stone, features small tableaux that can be removed to access the cables and pipes beneath.
The main infrastructure for all this technology, which pumps 450,000 m3 of air through the museum every hour, is the underground ‘energy ring’ in the garden around the museum. Located 5 m below ground, this 500-m-long circuit houses impressive pipes of up to 80 cm in diameter. The required grilles are incorporated into the new garden design. Located here and there are circular and crescent-shaped objects of 10 m in diameter.

Over the next year the exhibition galleries will be furnished to designs by the Paris office Willmotte. The colour palette of the walls will be subdued and derived from the colour schemes of the paintings on display. Observing the impressive job that has been accomplished here makes it embarrassing to think that most attention up to now has centred on that cursed cycle passage. At the same time, that has probably formed a convenient distraction, allowing the sweeping renovation work to be carried out relatively undisturbed in the recent years. I can hardly wait until the Rijksmuseum opens next year and can be enjoyed in full splendour. A gesamtkunstwerk as Cuypers intended it.