Dutch Toytown

While the renovation of the neighbouring Rijksmuseum is held up as an example of quality development, the controversy surrounding the Stedelijk Museum is a prime illustration of how it shouldn’t be done.


Early 1990s. Four architects – Rem Koolhaas, Wim Quist, Carel Weeber and Robert Venturi – are invited to make proposals to improve the Stedelijk Museum. Robert Venturi’s proposal wins.

1993. The extension project is deemed too ambitious. The programme has to be changed to stay within the budget.

November 1994. Venturi’s commission is retracted totally unexpectedly because, claims the client, the architect hasn’t amended his proposal. The architect claims he was never officially requested to do so. Meanwhile, Alvaro Siza is appointed to prepare a new design. A wave of protest ensues because European regulations governing public tenders have been ignored. Tenders in line with the European procedures are then invited from four architects, and from Siza.

June 1996. Announcement that Siza is to design the Stedelijk Museum extension.

January 1998. The first design proposal was presented. Redevelopment to proceed in two phases – phase 1 involving renovation and new construction, phase 2 replacement of the New Wing (Sandberg Wing) on Van Baerlestraat.

June 2000. The City Council decides that Phase 1 of redevelopment can start.

October 2000. That decision is suspended because of new plans for a possible annex to the Stedelijk Museum along the Zuidas (Southern Axis) development corridor, and because funding has not been finalised. It is decided to defer a final decision until after the municipal elections in 2002.

February 2002. A city council majority agrees to the plans for renovation and extension, including construction of a collection centre in Amsterdam North, despite the lack of a balanced budget.

September 2002. Presentation of the municipal budget for 2003. The redevelopment plans for the Stedelijk Museum are definitively scrapped. Siza’s extension will not go ahead, and neither will the collection centre in Amsterdam North. But the 2003 budget also states: ‘The municipal executive will conduct a feasibility study for a new ‘Museum for the 21st century’ within the framework of the Zuidas development. A portion of the original redevelopment plans for the Stedelijk Museum can be completed on the new site.’

The Plot Thickens

The story of the Stedelijk Museum’s proposed renovation/redevelopment is turning into a soap opera featuring more episodes than you’d have thought possible. And each episode is more hilarious than the previous. On Monday September 30 Amsterdam’s local TV station announced that a new Stedelijk Museum would be built in the Beatrix Park.

The news that the municipal executive had decided to pull the plug on the original redevelopment plan came as a bolt out of the blue for many of those involved.

According to the executive, funding for a collection centre in Amsterdam North and for two new wings on Museumplein had not been finalised, and only the major renovation work could proceed. On September 4 the Stedelijk Museum had distributed a glossy brochure to relations, friends and colleagues. In an accompanying letter the directors Rudi Fuchs and Stevijn van Heusden wrote that alderman for culture Hannah Belliot had ‘unequivocally’ stated at a press briefing on August 30 that the municipal executive was ‘fully behind the aims and ambitions of the Stedelijk Museum’. The letter continues: ‘This autumn Ms Belliot intends to present a proposal to the city council concerning the budget imbalance’. Was this a charm offensive, were they burying their heads in the sand, or did they really know no better? Siza, the architect for the renovation/extension, was certainly left in the dark. News that his scheme had been scrapped reached him through a journalist, and he let slip that after 6 years of work he wasn’t interested in renovation work alone. To which alderman Belliot retorted by saying, ‘We won’t be implementing Siza’s design. The city authorities are working on new renovation plans’.

A gathering to announce cancellation of the extension plan was used to launch the proposal for a museum for 21st-century art on the Zuidas, intended as Amsterdam’s ‘La Défense’ district. ‘It’s to be a museum of the future, and I’m thinking high-tech, multi-media, design, redefining boundaries’, explained alderman Belliot.

What had been intended as a compromise from aldermen for finance Dales and Belliot is getting more intriguing every day in the media. What is the status of this idea? And how seriously should it be taken? A new museum, perhaps an annex to the Stedelijk Museum, financed from surplus revenue generated from the sale of land along the Zuidas – surplus value generated, at least in part, by the very location of the museum on the Zuidas. An interesting detail: the proposed site for the new museum in Beatrix Park is the property not of the city authorities but of the ING Bank, and it currently houses a school and church. Demolition of the school, currently in use, will be required to facilitate the new development.

The Stedelijk Museum struck back with an all-or-nothing option. ‘The collection must be kept together. Temporary exhibitions are in part assembled from this permanent collection. An annex is therefore unacceptable to the museum management. Either the whole museum relocates to the Zuidas or it remains at Museumplein, and Siza’s redevelopment scheme can then be implemented.’

Everyone’s a loser in this game of poker. City of Amsterdam. Relocating the Stedelijk Museum to the Zuidas would represent a major loss for Museumplein and the Stedelijk Museum itself. If the North-South metro line is built, there will be no station at Museumplein and thus no logical transport link between the museums. Stedelijk Museum. No matter which plan is implemented, the museum will have to make do with inadequate accommodation for some years. Amsterdam City Council. The Dutch capital’s municipal executive has shown itself – for a second time – to be a wholly disreputable building client, first by firing Venturi and now Siza. What we are now witnessing is a power struggle between egos that has nothing to do with ideas on cultural policy or urban development. As the Frank van Klingeren once said, ‘We back in a Dutch Toytown again’.