In the documentary film The New Rijksmuseum, director Oeke Hoogendijk chronicles the simultaneously precise, meticulous, radical, and frustrating decade-long renovation of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum (2003–13), a significant piece of architecture that forms a centerpiece to the city and houses a treasure trove of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, including masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan Steen. First Run Features, which produced the film, describes Hoogendijk's work as capturing the story from a “fly-on-the-wall perspective,” a point of view that provides an innovative way to objectively document a controversial renovation and to convey the frustration involved in the sumptuous but fragmentary story the film delivers.1 As the camera follows the architects, museum director Ronald de Leeuw, art restorers, curators, artworks, and members of the feisty Dutch Cyclists’ Union (DCU), these performers in the renovation process tell a story about the ways in which this building's transformation engages social and material culture.
Rather than presenting an overview of the Rijksmuseum's architecture, its institutional history, or the artworks’ role in the design, Hoogendijk depicts events as they unfold across the duration of the renovation, inviting viewers to connect various scenes to create a larger narrative structure concerning the museum's transformation. Much like the compound eye of a fly, in which thousands of visual receptors carry information to the brain via the optic nerve, the film's uniform representation of diverse subject matter presents a kaleidoscope of sequences that provide impeccably detailed information but eschew telling a more comprehensive story. And like a fly that can observe without participating in a scene, Hoogendijk's camera lens lands on objects at close range.
At the museum's request Hoogendijk began filming in 2003, during the project's optimistic first phase, when the opening date was set for 2008. She began with a plan to document how the museum intended to reinvent itself but soon discarded this scheme as crises, delays, and budget overruns ensued.2 After the first four years of work, when it became clear the project was at an impasse, she negotiated an agreement to make a film in two parts that would have a total running time of more than four hours. Selective editing of these two parts, completed after the renovation was finished, resulted in the current 131-minute film. It begins with the project's conceptual origins, depicts the demolition of previous additions, documents the preservation process, and concludes with the triumphant opening dedication ceremony, replete with a breathtaking explosion of colored chalk cascading from the museum's roofscape of turrets and spires.
Although this chronology addresses the challenges of a decade-long renovation and offers an effective strategy for documenting the real-time successes and frustrations of a complex building process, the film also suffers from this approach. All of the scenes, whether depicting persons, construction details, meetings, or works of art, are treated uniformly, albeit resplendently lit with a chroma and color balance that matches the beauty of the Dutch masterworks the museum houses. Hoogendijk's focus on the unfolding of events displaces a needed overview of the building's metamorphosis and the pressures its urban context exerted on the original design, both of which fostered the need for a radical transformation. Viewers may infer some of this information from the film's details, but they must consult external sources to grasp the project's larger architectural and urban continuity. This is a beautiful but maddening film for architectural historians, but one well worth the effort for its attention to the details of the impeccable restoration of the original building and artworks.
Pierre J. H. Cuypers (1827–1921) designed the original Rijksmuseum, a hulking, eclectic Gothic and neo-Renaissance building that opened its doors to the public in 1885.3 Located in the Gallery of Honor on the first floor, Rembrandt's iconic painting The Night Watch formed the centerpiece of his symmetrical plan. During the course of the twentieth century Cuypers's decorative scheme of painted wall stencils, stained glass windows, and other elements was toned down, and the two large atria that flanked the central passageway were filled with galleries. Several additions were constructed on the south side to accommodate the changing functions of a museum that had expanded to contain more than one million items. These additions, which drastically transformed the original design, were to be redressed in an invited competition launched in 2003 with the directive to “continue with Cuypers.”4
The Spanish team of Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz were selected in large measure for their proposal to reconceive the main entrance and reopen the atria as light-filled public spaces. They soon found obstacles to the execution of their ideas in the form of bureaucracy and public resistance.5 For example, a protest by the DCU over the access route through the site stalled the project's completion, leading to the resignation of museum director Ronald de Leeuw in 2008. The new director, Wim Pijbes, was more concerned with getting the building finished than with maintaining fidelity to Cruz and Ortiz's original design.
While the film succeeds in depicting the intricate details of the renovation, it does not point out that some of the problems that arose were inherent in Cuypers's original design. The building site was given to the museum at no cost, but with the stipulation that an existing public thoroughfare—which eventually would penetrate the middle of the building at ground level—remain open to city bicycle and tram traffic. Insofar as this requirement split the building in two, Cuypers's solution was to provide separate entries on the East and West Wings rather than one main entry in the symmetrical center of the building's monumental north façade, which fronts a canal and faces toward the center of Amsterdam.6 This public right-of-way offers an important route for bicyclists, who otherwise would have to ride around the building, through congested intersections, and over canal bridges when making their way to and from the city center. Cruz and Ortiz had planned to alleviate the redundancy of two entrances by restricting the public thoroughfare slightly and locating a single entrance at the center of the underpass so that it would align with the central urban axis. They would have accommodated interior circulation with an underground passageway connecting the two wings below street level. But in a city dedicated to bicycle transportation, the cyclists prevailed, and the architects reluctantly developed a proposal that retained the entire passageway for pedestrian and bicycle traffic and provided two entries, one on either side of the central passage.
Despite all the controversies recounted in the film, it ends on a positive note with the completion of the painstakingly accurate renovation of Cuypers's building and the newly restored permanent collection open to the public. The potential for the film's fly-on-the-wall perspective to deliver impartial documentation, however, is not entirely realized. The director necessarily determines what is being shot and edits the material that appears in the final printed film. Behind the camera lens, the filmmaker's eye determines the grand narrative of the Rijksmuseum's exasperatingly slow renovation. Consequently, the movie depicts the painstaking work of historic preservation while viewers are left to infer intentions and motivations from body language, off-camera comments, and the animation of close-up shots of sculpted and painted figures. The camera animates everything in its sight, bringing into poignant focus falling sparks and plaster shards during demolition and construction, and the wistful look on the face of a supine sculpture waiting to be brought into the light of the new museum. This montage of exquisitely rendered moments shot at close range is the film's strength.