LA Study Tour with Jack
Museumplein, Amsterdam
by Amy C. Verel

1. Introduction

Museumplein is the 19th century Museum Square of Amsterdam and the public park that unites four of the city's most prominent cultural institutions: the Rijksmuseum (State Museum), the Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum of Modern Art, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, and the Concertgebouw, home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Located just outside Amsterdam's city center, east of Vondelpark, another of the city's major parks, and south of the 17th century square Leidseplein, Museumplein is one of the largest public parks in the city. In addition to the three major museums and the Concertgebouw, the square is surrounded by lively residential neighborhoods filled with restaurants, galleries, cafes and shops.

Museumplein - City Context
Image: Google Earth

The square provides large, open green spaces for passive recreation and is also used for large public events such as festivals, concerts, and protests. The northeastern section of the square is dominated by the Rijksmuseum, where multiple benches, kiosks, and gridded tree plantings create an urban plaza counterpart to the expansive southwestern lawn. A long reflecting pool provides a dramatic entrance to the Rijksmuseum from Museumplein and a low, comfortable seating wall. The pool is used for wading in the summer and is frozen for ice-skating in the winter, making the square a popular multi-season neighborhood destination.

Museumplein - Aerial Photo
Image: Google Earth

A major redesign and reconstruction in 1999, designed by Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson, included a spatial reorganization of the open spaces, pedestrian paths, vehicular use and circulation around the square, and sightlines and amenities throughout the square. Prior to the redesign, the square was dominated by vehicular circulation; a busy, north-south road bisected the square between the Concertgebow and the Rijksmuseum; and fragmented green spaces were surrounded by surface parking.

Rijksmuseum & Museumplein - Aerial Perspective

The pre-restoration Museumplein worsened the problematic relationship of the museum buildings to the square and to each other; while the Concertgebow and the Rijksmuseum present relatively strong faces onto the square, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk, located next to each other on the western side, face the adjacent street and away from the square. The arrangement of the buildings has made attempts to pull them together more difficult, and the redesign has stirred controversy and disagreement over its success in establishing a cohesive square that unites the museums while serving as an important neighborhood park.

2. History & Background

The concentration of museums at Museumplein has evolved over the past 150 years, however its location was indicated on the city's earliest land use plans as an area for clustering important cultural institutions. Together, the three museums drew roughly 2.5 million visitors in 2002, about half of whom came from abroad.

Museumplein Site Key
Source: Hauxner 2000

The Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum (State Museum), on the northeastern edge of Museumplein, is the Netherlands' largest museum for art and history in size of collections, size of building, budget, and number of staff employed. The historic building was designed in 1885 by Pierre Cuypers, and although the main entrance is not located on Museumplein, the museum has a strong presence on the square that has been enhanced by recent renovations and the Andersson redesign. The museum is undergoing the most extensive renovation in its history; work started in 2003 and is scheduled for completion in 2010.

Rijksmuseum & Reflecting Pool
Image: A. Verel

Rijksmuseum & I Amsterdam Sculpture
Image: F. Varro

The Stedelijk

The Stedelijk (Municipal) Museum for Modern Art was also built in 1895, at Paulus Potterstraat by Amsterdam city architect A.W.Weissman. The Stedelijk became the city's museum of modern art in 1938, and in 1973 the Vincent Van Gogh Museum was opened as an extension of the Stedelijk's collection. The museum's original, neo-renaissance building is currently closed under extensive renovations, and rotating exhibitions are on view at a temporary location (the Post-CS Building, Oosterdokskade 5).

Stedelijk & Sloped Lawn
Image: A. Verel

The renovated building, at the southwestern corner of Museumplein, will reopen in 2009 with a new, modern addition designed by Bentham Crouwel Architects. The jury awarding the commission to the firm commented that "If the new Stedelijk turns its face more toward the Museumplein, accommodating the desire for an open, accessible character, the "dog-ear" of the underground parking garage will be an obstacle. It must be possible to deal in an aesthetically responsible manner with the way in which the park landscape turns its back on the Museumplein (Jury Report: Architect Selection for the Stedelijk Museum, 2004)." Surmounting the seven meter high grassy slope designed by Andersson to accommodate the entrance to a new underground parking garage, which stands directly between the Stedelijk and the Museumplein, has proved a difficult and controversial problem for the museum.

Existing Conditions, Stedelijk Museum

Future Addition, Stedelijk Museum
Image: Benthem Crouwel Architects
Orienting the revamped museum entrance towards Museumplein in order to engage the civic character of the improved square seems to have been resolved by Bentham Crowell's design, which perches the new building atop the sloped green. The jury report declared that "The design by Benthem Crouwel is so powerful that the desired change in orientation of the museum ensemble toward the Museumplein takes place as a natural consequence." The planned Museumplein entrance is close to the entrance of the Van Gogh Museum, which promises to improve the link between the old Stedelijk and its young offspring.

Future Addition Entrance, Stedelijk Museum - Sloped lawn on right
Image: Benthem Crouwel Architects

The Vincent Van Gogh Museum

The main building of the Vincent Van Gogh Museum was designed in 1963 by Gerrit Rietveld and opened to the public in 1973. It faces the Paulus Potterstraat and has its back to the Museumplein. An elliptical exhibition wing, designed by Kisho Kurokawa in 1999, was intended to improve the presentation of the museum towards the square, however the success of this attempt is hotly debated. Kurokawa is known for his use of geometric forms, such as cones, ellipses and squares; the ovoid museum addition has been described by fans and detractors alike as "an orb, a space module, or satellite (Thompson, 1999)."

Van Gogh Museum & Open Lawn
Image: A. Verel

The addition juts into the open space of the Museumplein and is especially prominent in the northeast sightline from Van Baerlestraat, where the Concertgebouw is located. Its wall is blank except for high windows exposed by the arc of the roof, and entrance is obtained through connections in Rietveld's building. The relationship of the structure to the Museumplein is uneasy; to its credit, it provides some shade and an artful, curving architectural edge to the open lawn. It does, however, significantly diminish the opportunity for long sightlines across the Museumplein, especially from Van Baerlstraat and the 'dog ear' of Andersson's sloped green in front of the Stedelijk.

Van Gogh Museum, Japanese Cherry Trees, & Site Furnishings
Image: A. Verel

The lack of windows and direct entrance from the Museumplein also detract from its engagement of the square. One visitor was observed kicking a soccer ball against the blank wall, an activity which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and was likely not anticipated by the architect nor encouraged by museum management. The addition certainly engages the square; whether it does so positively or negatively is debatable.

The Concertgebouw

The Concertgebouw, home of the world-renowned Koninklijk (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra, was built in 1888 by architect Van Gendt and is located across the busy avenue Van Baerlstraat. Its grand, neoclassical main entrance faces the Museumplein and, despite the wide road separating it from the square, it engages the space architecturally and socially. Among its 350 yearly concerts are frequent outdoor performances and occasional collaboration with the Stedelijk to offer reduced combination fares to visitors.

Concertgebouw, Museumplein Open Lawn & Sloped Lawn
Image: F. Varro

Concertgebouw & Van Baerlstraat at Night - View from Sloped Lawn
Image: F. Varro

3. Project Description

Andersson's 1999 redesign employed improvements to pedestrian circulation, open gathering spaces, sightlines and lighting improvements to unify the square with the surrounding museum architecture, and an artificial pond/skating rink. All vehicular circulation was removed from the square by eliminating the major road and constructing a large, subsurface parking garage. Major infrastructural changes included the construction two pavilions near the Rijksmuseum to house a café and a museum shop operated jointly by the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. In addition to the underground parking structure, a large supermarket was constructed beneath the square. The sloped lawn in front of the Stedelijk creates the entrance for these underground amenities, which have helped to animate the space and to remove surface parking and vehicular circulation from the square.

Concertgebouw, Sloped Lawn & Japanese Cherry Trees
Image: A. Verel

New park features included the long reflecting/wading pool with stone seating wall in front of the Rijksmuseum; new benches and site furniture, and a grid of plane trees among the pavilions in that area; a light line running across the square from Van Baerlstraat to the Rijksmuseum and terminating in a small fountain; an arching grove of Japanese cherry trees south of the Van Gogh Museum addition, a flower garden, and a circle of lamps intersecting with the existing avenue of lime trees in the southeastern corner.

Concertgebouw and Light Line
Image: A. Verel

4. Significance and Critique

As one of the only large green spaces in Amsterdam, the 1999 Andersson redesign and reconstruction has been controversial. It has been called "a tour de force in finding a solution between the requirements of the council, the local population, and the site's access" (Garden Design 2000). It has been criticized by others as unpopular, weak, and unsuccessful at linking the museums, especially in relation to the tilted green roof in front of the Stedelijk Museum. The improvements to the Museumplein as a public park have been received as a success; the task of bringing the museums and Concertgebouw together physically and spiritually was far more complex, and the success of this in the redesign remains to be seen.

Rijksmuseum & Vendors in Plaza Area
Image: A. Verel

On a recent visit during unpredictable spring weather, the entire square was well-used and pleasant. The open lawns were used for casual gatherings of sports and dog walking; the new pedestrian paths, which angle asymmetrically but logically across the lawn, were comfortably scaled, and the green spaces in between were well proportioned. The plaza area in front of the Rijksmuseum bustled with art and food vendors, and the reflecting pool was a popular seating and gathering place. The 'I Amsterdam' sculpture, while not part of Andersson's design, has become an iconic image for the city and for the park, creating a tourist and photographic destination.

Rijksmuseum & Ice Skating on the Reflecting Pool

The sloped green over the parking garage and supermarket entrance is a massive, innovative structure that has a bold presence in relation to Van Baerlstraat and the Concertgebouw; a climb to the top brings one about 21 feet above the busy street for spectacular views of the square and avenue. Its impact on the Stedelijk, which is currently vacant under extensive renovation, is to create a formidable barrier between the museum and the Museumplein, although Bentham Crowell's proposed design promises to create a dynamic new relationship between the two.

On the Sloped Lawn at Museumplein, in front of Stedelijk Museum
University of Massachusetts, Amherst - Paris-Amsterdam Landscape Architecture Study Tour Class, March 2007
Image: Linda Ahern

Because the physical and cultural connections of the museums to the square and to each other remain the most significant criticism of the Museumplein, the hoped-for success of the Stedelijk addition is significant to the future of the square. The architectural orientation of the Stedelijk and the Van Gogh Museum to the square are the most problematic among the museums, so the renovation of the Stedelijk represents a great opportunity to reconcile the principle weakness of what has become an otherwise successful and well-used public park.

5. Visitor Information

Public Transit
Bus/Tram lines: 2, 5, 20, 74

The Rijksmuseum
Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm

Stedelijk Museum CS
Temporary Location: Post-CS Building, Oosterdokskade 5
Open daily 10 am - 6 pm

Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Open daily 10 am - 6 pm


Museumplein Area Map
Image: Google Maps

6. References & Sources

2. Bentham Crouwel Architects:
3. Een plein dat maar geen plein wil worden," (1989) Archis July, no.7, p.6
4. "Jury Report: Architect Selection for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam," Tuesday, August 31, 2004.
5. 'Museumplein: een vergelijkend beeldonderzoek = A comparative photo research," (2000) Archis, July, n.7, p.40-43
6. "Reviewing the Twentieth-Century Landscape," (2000) Garden History, Summer, Vol. 28, No. 1
7. Andersson, Sven-Ingvar (2004) "Museumplein Amsterdam," Arkitektur: the Swedish review of architecture, April, v.104, n.3, p.28-31
8. Bouman, Ole (1999) "Museumpark Amsterdam," Archis, August, n.8, p.4-5
9. Brummel, Klazien (2000) "Amsterdam: Platz frei fur die Museen = Amsterdam : a square makes room for museums," Topos: European landscape magazine, June, n.31, p.74-78
10. Hauxner, Malene (2000) "Museumplein, Amsterdam," Landskab Sept., v.81, n.5, p.129-133
11. Lund, Annemarie (1993) "Museumsplein i Amsterdam," Arkitekten, March, v.95, n.4, p.156
12. McGuire, Penny (1999) "Elliptical vision - new wing of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands," The Architectural Review, August
13. Thompson, Belinda (1999) "Review: Theo van Gogh, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum," The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 141, No. 1158. September, pp. 567-569
14. van Aalst, Irina and Inez Boogarts (2002) "From Museum to Mass Entertainment; the evolution of the role of museums in cities," European Urban and Regional Studies, 9(3): 195-209

Path leading east out of Museumplein
Image: A. Verel