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The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam boasts an impressive collection of 90,000 pieces of art from the 19th century to the present, spanning every conceivable media from painting and photography to sculpture and furniture. The collection has included design and applied art since the 1930s, but the works were never an integral part of the display. So when the museum wanted to restructure its galleries, the design team decided to transform lower-level area, formerly a space for temporary exhibits, into Stedelijk BASE, a new showcase for the museum’s extensive permanent collection. “We needed a new prescription for the work,” says Margriet Schavemaker, curator and manager of learning at the museum “We wanted to merge the design and art and create a dynamic architecture for it.”.

Framework for art and design
The museum collaborated with AMO, the research branch of the OMA, to rethink the artwork presentation. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Federico Martelli, the result is a series of freestanding, interlocking steel panels that give visitors an open-ended route through the gallery. “We knew we didn’t want the typical room-by-room display,” says Martelli, the project’s architect.“We didn’t want to compartmentalize art in this large space.”

The AMO team worked closely with curators, technicians, and researchers to study archival materials, taking particular interest in the types of walls and display configurations that had been used by the museum for the past 80 years.

The 15-millimeter steel and plywood panels ultimately chosen for the room were extensively analyzed by the Arup engineers. They not only withstand stressors and vibrations, but also bring a sleek, modern aesthetic to the space that doesn’t compete with the vibrant colors in the art. “The panels are made of a fine, sandblasted steel,” Martelli says. “They are really dark gray and white. We still had to follow the norm of the white walls.”

Engaging with art
Beyond the in-depth analysis of the new walls, there was also an examination of the items in the collection. Martelli, who spent nearly two years working on the project, says that he drew upon his personal connection with the objects. “I live 30 minutes away from the museum, so I would go there often to see and experience the art. I wanted to understand what makes this collection special.”

Martelli realized that the placement of the art on these partitions, and the arrangement of the walls themselves, would enhance the viewer’s experience. The perimeter walls of the room offer a strictly chronological presentation of important works in the collection, while the panels highlight specific themes and artists. “These historically significant works are placed together, and you can see the creative relationships between them,” he says.

For Schavemaker, the arrangement of the partitions is also a vital element. “On the diagonal panels, key artists, movements, and historical moments are highlighted,” he says.

The work is displayed on both sides of each panel, and there are also platforms to showcase furniture or vases, so design objects and paintings can be viewed together. “This new display brings you closer to the art, which creates an intimacy,.” Schavemaker says.The system puts the masses in direct proximity to the art like never before, creating an unprecedented interest in the works. Passive viewers are now engaged viewers.

The art is arranged in chronological order, but patrons don’t have to follow any set program as they move through the space. They are free to set their own pace, which alters how they perceive the work. For Schavemaker, having people connect with art on their own terms is a worthy achievement, and cause for celebration. “As a visitor, you are free to look at whatever you think is important,”he says. “It’s a democratic and not hierarchical way of looking art. I’m so proud of what we’ve created.”

Project Credits
Architect: AMO, research brand of OMA
OMA project team: Rem Koolhaas, partner; Federico Martelli, project architect; Samir Bantal, Janna Bystrykh, Mario Garcia
Primary fabricator: Tata Steel Nederland
Lighting: Theatermachine
Engineering: Arup