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Rijksmuseum Ateliergebouw by Cruz y Ortiz, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Cruz y Ortiz’s contemporary take on Amsterdam’s milieu provides a integrated home for the Rijksmuseum’s conservation and restoration departments. Photography by Duccio Malagamba

The lift purrs up to the third floor of the Rijksmuseum’s new Ateliergebouw and ping! You’re in a high-tech, high-spec version of an artist’s garret, bathed in pale, Low Countries light, with the turrets and gables of Amsterdam wheeling off in all directions. Ateliergebouw means ‘studio building’, and this workshop is the set piece space in a facility dedicated to the conservation of historic objects, from paper and ceramics to metal and textiles. Up here, paintings from the museum’s collection are repaired by attentive conservators. The pace is painstaking, the atmosphere hushed, but there’s still something slightly disarming about seeing priceless works at such close quarters - naked, unframed and casually propped on wooden easels - as if you’d strayed into Vermeer’s studio by mistake.

As it has been for centuries, clear north light is key to these endeavours, greedily funnelled through glazed serrations on the walls and roof, which give the new building a punky, quasi-industrial profile.

With its brown brick and big windows, the Ateliergebouw might seem quintessentially Dutch but in fact was designed by the Seville-based partnership of Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz. Their tough, contemporary take on Amsterdam’s milieu is impressive, but perhaps not that surprising given a track record of being intelligently alert both to local surroundings and the undercurrents of history, which swirl more deeply here, as the Ateliergebouw marks an important juncture in the ongoing redevelopment of the Rijksmuseum. Since 1885 the Dutch national art collection has been housed in Pierre Cuypers’ blowsy 19th-century chateau, familiar to legions of tourists, but by the turn of the millennium it was suffering from deterioration and overcrowding. The government grasped the nettle and in 2001, following a competition, appointed Cruz y Ortiz to implement an extensive programme of works that will culminate in 2013.

This initial phase sees all the Rijksmuseum’s restoration departments rehoused in the Ateliergebouw, freeing up exhibition space in the Cuypers building. But it also marks a shift in working culture. In the labyrinthine quarters of the Rijksmuseum, departments were disconnected. ‘We had a lady who worked in textile restoration for 30 years and nobody really knew who she was,’ says Robert van Langh, head of conservation and research.

The new building is more consciously integrated and is shared with staff from the Netherlands Institute of Cultural Heritage and the University of Amsterdam, which runs courses in art conservation.

Lying to the south-east of the Rijksmuseum, the site is a long, narrow strip compressed by surrounding buildings. The ‘main’ north facade on Hobbemastraat is a fragment of the former Veiligheidsinstituut, also designed by Cuypers. The bitter chocolate hue of its brick is faithfully matched by Cruz and Ortiz, but the new material, laid in plain stretcher bond, has a more intense, almost violet tinge, set off by greenish-grey aluminium cladding on the roof and south-facing walls.

The old part has been radically reconfigured to house offices and the staff restaurant. Extending behind it, down the length of the site, the new block contains four floors of clinically white, rigorously climate-controlled restoration labs, workshops and studios. Below ground are two technical and storage levels and a passage linking the Ateliergebouw with the Rijksmuseum, so objects can be safely conveyed back and forth. Despite the onerous technical and security requirements, there is poetry too, with panels of internal glazing encouraging views across the length and breadth of the building, affording tantalising glimpses of the staff at work and the precious objects of their attention.

Architect Cruz y Ortiz, Seville, Spain
Associate architect A+D+P
Project team Thomas Offermans,Tirma Reventos, Iko Mennenga, J Carlos Mulero, Miguel Velasco, Luis Gutierrez, Monica del Arenal
Structural engineer Aronsohn Raadgevende
Services engineer Grontmij Technical Management

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