A House for Art - The Museum Building

How can architecture enhance the perception of works of art? Let’s plunge into the rich history of the museum building.

Over the years Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s accommodation has taken on different forms and been considerably extended more than once. Time and again directors and architects have had clear ideas about the best way to house the collection. How can architecture enhance the perception of works of art? This has been an ever-present question in the history of the museum building.

Jan Rothuizen draws a visit to the museum

The Schielandshuis 1849

In 1849 the collection gifted by F.J.O. Boijmans (1767-1847) found its first home: the Schielandshuis in Korte Hoogstraat, built in 1662 for the Schieland district water board, which oversaw dikes, polders and water management.

Dutch Classicism

This Dutch classicist building was designed by Jacob Lois (Rotterdam 1620 - Rotterdam 1676), in close collaboration with the master builder Pieter Post (Haarlem 1608 – The Hague 1669), who also designed the Mauritshuis (1634-1644).

In 1864 a fire broke out in the Schielandshuis. As much as two thirds of the collection went up in flames. After the burned-out building had been restored, what remained of the collection was exhibited again; it grew rapidly as new acquisitions were purchased with the insurance money.

Cornelis van der Griendt, De brand van het Schielandshuis op 15/16 februari 1864, pen and brush in black ink, grey and red wash, heightened with white, donation: C. van der Grient 1900
Cornelis van der Griendt, De brand van het Schielandshuis op 15/16 februari 1864, pen and brush in black ink, grey and red wash, heightened with white, donation: C. van der Grient 1900

The building soon became too small, particularly since it also had to house the library and the City Council Archives. An annex for modern art in Boymansstraat (now Bulgersteyn) was likewise inadequate. It was time for a new museum building.

The interior of the Schielandshuis
The interior of the Schielandshuis

The Van der Steur Building 1935

City architect Adrianus van der Steur (Haarlem 1893 - Rotterdam 1953) was deemed to be the most appropriate person for this task. As city architect he left his mark on Rotterdam in the inter-war years. He regarded Museum Boymans as his most important work. At that time there was rivalry between the innovative modernists and the conservative traditionalists. Van der Steur positioned himself between the two. He championed no particular style of building, but drew inspiration from different styles, choosing an appropriate variant for each assignment.

A.J. van der Steur
A.J. van der Steur

Van der Steur and director Dirk Hannema (1921-1945) went on a study trip through Europe to see how other museums showed their collections to best effect, taking account of aspects like visitor flows and lighting. Van der Steur argued that a good museum building had to provide balance for the weighty intellectual exertion of a museum visit. Impossible stairs, oppressive colours and poorly arranged groupings of works of art could make a museum visit a torment.

Building a climate control system into the museum as part of the architectural design was an innovation. Lighting was also a priority. In a temporary building he tested lighting options to see which would show works of art at their best. Bringing light in from the sides on the ground floor and using roof lights on the first floor meant the art could be viewed as far as possible in daylight.


On darker winter days this natural light was augmented with corona discharge lamps, for which special brackets were installed in the roof light frames. Snow was planned for too: steam pipes melted the snow on the roof.

Did you know

that the lighting in the Rijksmuseum was based on Museum Boymans’s? Van der Steur’s inventions were greatly admired by the museum world.


The Land van Hoboken (the Dijkzigt estate) - now Museumpark, but then still a peaceful meadow behind Westersingel - became the site for the museum.

Finally the moment was there: the new museum was built between 1928 and 1935.

Mike Redman: From Project to Object

Construction workers and music – you’ll have an idea about the possible implications of this combination. Surprisingly, Mike Redman lets the men who, over seventy years ago, built Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, make their own music.

The closed walls around an inner courtyard and a garden (on Westersingel) looked traditional. Distinct green accents enlivened the dark red bricks, which were specially made for the museum. A tall tower marked the monumental main entrance, like the departure point of a chronological journey through the history of art. The restrained yet impressive building revealed its debt to the work of the Swedish architect R. Östberg (Stockholm 1866 –1945). Take a look at the Stockholm City Hall.


Over time the tower has fulfilled different roles: from classroom to workplace to storage space. It is not used nowadays.

The tower had no clear function, apart from Van der Steur’s view that it was a rhythmic and logical architectural necessity. His former colleague W. van den Berg simply said that he liked it. Director Dirk Hannema attributed a symbolic meaning to it, referring to the higher values of the art of painting. This sentiment drew criticism from the city council, which thought that the museum was ‘elevating itself above ordinary everyday life in an unbecoming way’. Alexander Bodon, the architect of the later extension to the building, would probably have thought the same; to him, adding a non-functional tower would have been inconceivable.

The interior provides an intimate glimpse of art collectors’ private collections. The cabinets (small rooms) and suites (two adjoining rooms) are the size of rooms in private houses, reflecting the history of the museum, which was created from gifts and loans by private collectors.

The Bodon Wing 1972

The new museum building was a success, and by the 1940s there were already plans for an extension. The shortage of space became even more acute when the sizeable collection once owned by D.G. van Beuningen (1877-1955) was added to that of F.J.O. Boijmans. The small cabinets were particularly problematic when it came to exhibiting – often large – works of modern art.

Waxing Arcs

Modern canvases, installations or sculptures can be huge. Take Richard Serra’s ‘Waxing Arcs’, made especially for the new wing.

Van der Steur’s original design allowed for a future expansion of the building, but death intervened and he was unable to accomplish it himself. On his deathbed in 1953, Van der Steur named his colleague Alexander Bodon (Vienna 1906 - Amsterdam 1993) as someone who could take over his plans.

Instead of elaborating on the ideas of his predecessor, Bodon drew up his own plans in agreement with director J.C. Ebbinge Wubben (1950-1978). Flexibility and transparency were the criteria for the extension. An entirely new wing was built on the Westersingel side, creating a new courtyard.


On the ground floor passers-by were able to see inside through the glass exterior walls; it was like looking in a shop window.

On the street side a new ‘modern art’ entrance was built beneath a projecting porch. It included a new print room, and a large exhibition space with movable walls ideal for changing exhibitions on the first floor. In line with the old building the new section was the same height and daylight entered through a transparent roof structure.

A museum building must not force itself on visitors. It has to create a calm, neutral environment for visitors and artworks alike. This principle – underpinned by new structural possibilities – resulted in transparent, open architecture.

Form follows function

As a member of De 8 group of architects and a representative of Nieuwe Bouwen – New Building or New Objectivity – in the Netherlands, Bodo maintained that architecture was a craft that served. ‘Form follows function’ was the slogan: the function is the starting point for the design.

In terms of character there is a world of difference between the Bodon Wing and Van der Steur’s design: the introversion of the solemn collection building contrasts strongly with the open, extrovert exhibition space. The reviews were glowing: Rotterdam finally had a meeting place with international flair.

Did you know

that the new extension looked so simple that people wondered if it had actually needed an architect? Bodon could not have imagined a greater compliment; if he had had his way he would have put up a large, empty box.

The Van Beuningen-de Vriese Pavilion 1991

In the early 1980s the museum acquired the loan of the large Van Beuningen-de Vriese Collection, which contained a variety of implements and artefacts from the 1150-1800 period. Subsequently the museum was allowed to keep this loan of pre-industrial applied art as a gift, on condition that a good location was found for it. The architect Hubert Jan Henket (Heerlen 1940), working closely with director Wim Crouwel (1985-1993), designed a pavilion on the garden side of the Van der Steur Building.

They opted for a large, transparent annex because of the splendid view of the garden and the lake, above a semi-sunken basement. The timeless result was praised by the press and added to the monument list of the future.

Photo: Hans Wilschut 2008
Photo: Hans Wilschut 2008

Today the museum restaurant occupies the first floor, while the Van Beuningen-de Vriese Collection retains its permanent place in the sunken section.

Robbrecht & Daem’s Extension 2003

In 2003 the museum underwent yet another transformation. The aim was to create a museum of the 21st century, in which visitors and their experience of art were key. Director Chris Dercon (1996-2003) wanted to prise the museum open, make it accessible and link it more visibly to the city. He chose the Belgian duo Paul Robbrecht (Sleidinge 1950) and Hilde Daem (Haaltert 1950) to overhaul the entire museum and expand it. The two architects were known for their interest in the dialogue between art and architecture, in which those very contrasts are emphasized.


The commission was to ‘build on, but make it smaller’. The extension and the makeover had to ensure that the collection as a whole could be experienced in a clear and effective way.

Robbrecht and Daem built a concrete and glass U-shape around Bodon’s building. The spaces between the Bodon Wing and the Van der Steur building were filled so that the building was more of an entity. The museum was then, as it were, built around three ‘inner spaces’: the inner garden, the courtyard and the large, open galleries in the Bodon Wing. Visitors now entered through the courtyard, which gave access to the new foyer that had been built on to the exhibition section.

Floor plan ground floor
Floor plan ground floor
Floor plan first floor
Floor plan first floor

With the closure of the old main entrance the architects presented visitors with another route through the museum, with a new staircase to the collection rooms as the starting point. Later, with the arrival of director Sjarel Ex (2004 - present), the old entrance was reopened so that visitors could choose which section they wanted to visit first: the Bodon Wing with temporary exhibitions or the permanent display of the collection in the Van der Steur building.

The new entrance
The new entrance
The new staircase
The new staircase


The demolition of a house created space for expansion to Westersingel in the form of galleries to accommodate offices.

The new library was given a prominent place on the ground floor, becoming a learning facility in the museum totally accessible to the public. A new digital repository - located in the museum until 2008 - opened up the then 140,000 artworks and made it accessible to everyone.

The library, photo: Paul Jansen
The library, photo: Paul Jansen
The digital repository, photo: Tom Haartsen
The digital repository, photo: Tom Haartsen

Again Robbrecht and Daem took a quirky approach to Van der Steur’s existing building. The light green accents and verticality of the 1930s building were echoed in the glass panels in front of the concrete. Adding small spaces around the Bodon Wing referenced the intimate cabinets in the old building. The architects had linked the past to the present - and the future. As Paul Robbrecht pointed out, there is no such thing as a final result: ‘a museum is never finished’.


The revamped courtyard and foyer make the museum blockbuster-proof.

Onward to a New Public Art Depot

Nowadays the collection contains some 145,000 objects, most stored in the museum’s repositories and at a number of external locations. This distribution creates numerous logistical problems, and many artworks remain unseen. The existing repositories are old-fashioned and prone to flooding.

Sjarel Ex, director Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in the repository
Sjarel Ex, director Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in the repository

A New Public Art Depot

Sjarel Ex, Winy Maas and others explain in two minutes why the Public Art Depot is such a great plan.

The first plans for a new repository next door to the museum in Museumpark, which will be the first in the world to be accessible for the public, were drawn up in 2005. The Public Art Depot will be Rotterdam’s new treasure house and the city will get a spectacular piece of architecture. The Public Art Depot is scheduled for completion in 2020.


Architects MVRDV’s giant reflective flower pot will give the city another iconic building.

Trailer Public Art Depot