Progress and Continuity

Now that the election season is over for this year, politicians and citizens are left to sort through the results and figure out how to move forward. While some want change, others want continuity and preservation of existing conditions. These two forces have always been opposed to one another and perhaps they always will be as each side has legitimate interests and principles.

Newport is not alone in this battle between these two contradictory forces. There will be a screening of a documentary, The New Rijksmuseum: A Drama of Dreams and Ambition, at the Jane Pickens Theatre and Event Center on Monday November 10 that distills ten years of controversy and design efforts surrounding the redevelopment of the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands central repository of art and culture. The Rijksmuseum, like most museums, is pulled by the same conflicts of preservation and change, deciding which objects of the past are worthy to be maintained and displayed and which objects of the present are worth showcasing as the signs and symbols of current cultural phenomenon.

The Rijksmuseum was first founded in 1800 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first housed in a royal palace. The main building of the existing complex was designed by Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1885. By 2003, the institution which houses among the greatest collections of Vermeer and Rembrandt in the world was tired and worn from the more than 2 million visitors it received each year and needed a major overhaul.  The main museum was closed with 400 of the most noteworthy pieces from the more than 8,000 previously displayed and more than 1,000,000 objects in its collection were put on display in the “Fragment Building” which had been renovated in the 1990’s.

The documentary captures and synthesizes the debate and issues surrounding the redesign by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz and condenses it into two two-hour segments. There will be a reception and discussion in the intermission between the two segments.  Originally scheduled to take five years, community groups like the Dutch Cyclists Union voiced their concerns and the project was delayed to take their issues into account. The filmmakers intended to capture the real life conflict and controversy not knowing what the ultimate result would be. Editing ten years of footage into the final two part documentary must have been a challenge to give fair play to the complexities and twists that occurred in the story but the tale does have a triumphal and happy ending with the re-opening of the Museum in 2013 by Queen Beatriz of the Netherlands to popular acclaim and praise for the renovated facility.

The first segment will be shown at 2:00pm and the second segment will begin at 4:30pm. Admission for students is $5 and admission for adults is $10. Members of the Newport Architectural Forum will have their admission paid for by the organization. The screening was organized and supported by the Bonnie Kniskern Foundation. Architects my receive continuing education credits for viewing the documentary through the Rhode Island American Institute of Architects.

Sometimes it feels like progress is impossible in a historic community where the legitimate desire to preserve everything old is a strong sentiment but the story of the renovation of the Rijksmuseum shows that it is possible to both keep the best of the past but build upon it so that future generations will be able to see not only the best of the 19th and 20th centuries but also the best of the 21st century and beyond. It also shows how the complex interactions of preservation, architecture and urban planning combine to create a better design than any of those disciplines would have created on their own and so, in the end, the story is a celebration of human interaction and accomplishment not over the forces of conflict but forged through the crucible of the conflict itself. It is a lesson and model that will hopefully serve Newport and its citizens going forward.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia and is an historian, educator and practicing architect living in Newport and working for A4 Architecture Inc.