Dirk Jan Postel (1957) is architect and partner at Kraaijvanger architects since 1992, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He studied at TU Delft (Delft University of Technology). With a great deal of experience in public and institutional buildings (City Halls, Theatre, Schools, Glass Pavilion, Ambassador’s residence), Dirk Jan Postel is best known for his attention to detail and his deep knowledge of materials, especially glass. The key focus of his designs is transparency, spatial relationships, and sightlines.
In 2009, Joop van Caldenborgh commissioned Dirk Jan Postel to design the museum that houses his renowned collection.
Since its opening in 2016 in the beautiful coastal area of Wassenaar, near the city of the Hague, the Museum has established itself as a first-rank reference in the Dutch art landscape. The Museum has won multiple prizes, including the RIBA Award for International Excellence 2018 and the Dutch Daylight Award 2018.
Listen to the full interview in the podcast
‘From the start, we were very serious about making a museum which would serve the arts’
Cynthia Deckers: When you visit Museum Voorlinden, you are amazed by the harmonious dialogue between the building and the art, the light and the surrounding landscape. How did you integrate these three elements?
Dirk Jan Postel: I think that, from the start, we were very serious about being precise, making a museum which would serve the arts. We always explained this, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you make an ugly museum or a museum which has an indifferent or non-existent type of architecture. On the contrary, we were serious about the relationship between the outside world: the beautiful landscape, the country house, and the collection. So, this is this ‘inside/outside’ story.
Once we had the go-ahead for a daylight museum, it became a sort of decisive factor in the quality of the design. Also, the concept of servicing walls parallel to the dunes allowed us to open and close the building at will. Making this a composition of closed galleries and, yet within an open building. Dividing the three parts of the programme by cross-section axes so, when you enter the building, you’re at once almost outside again. You’re sort of on the other side, you know it with your eyes. Your eyes are there, but your intelligence behind them is even stronger. (…)
Then the idea of the light roof came (…) and, you can only make it in this way, so sober and so minimalistic in its form and in its design tools if you comply with a very strict system of measurements. Everything is built on a 20 x 20 centimetre square, which is basically the size of a plank in the parquet. (…) There are small deviations, but very few. It was close to perfect (…)
Possibly, I could show you like a good tailor can show you the tricks he did with a beautiful suit. How did he do it? You know that it’s in the stitch, sometimes you not aware, but you feel that it’s like that.
CD: As Mies van der Rohe said, ‘God Is In The Details’.
DJP: That’s what I believe. People can sense the purity of it, although they may not understand everything that you need to do to achieve it. Like a facade with no columns for instance, and holding a roof with a span of almost 11 metres…
CD: Museum Voorlinden integrates art in all its forms. The museum is organised into three distinct areas: the main collection, the temporary exhibitions and permanent in-situ artworks. Can you tell us more about your collaboration with the artists and how you incorporated the art pieces in the museum? ‘Open Ended’, the monumental sculpture by Richard Serra, for example.
DJP: My idea for the ‘Open Ended’ sculpture of Richard Serra was to make the upper gallery so that you could first experience the sculpture without being aware of it. But then you would see the heads above you and you could realize you can climb up and you look down. It’s a deeper sense of the artwork. It’s a very beautiful piece by the way. It also reminded me of those labyrinths in old castles and then in the middle you can get up and all of a sudden you understand, you know, which is a very human condition, you find your way through and once you’re there you understand where you have been.
It’s like the design itself, it is a sort of analogy. So that was my idea and the only thing Richard Serra did was to ask for 24 metres by 18 metres, the room, the space, which was what we made.
CD: What about the Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich, or the Skyscape by James Turrell? We know those were technical challenges.
DJP: Leandro Erlich described, he had got a recipe: ‘This is the pool and this is the type of materials I need’.(…) There’s a lot of technique, because the water needs to be in movement, as Mr. van Caldenborgh was very well aware of, water is quite an aggressive fluid, if it’s there for a while. (…) We had to have a special chemical layer between the glass layers and these have to be protected from the water. They needed to be dry, otherwise, you get a sort of matted effect. The whole thing finally got us the Glass Award for the technique we used. The construction cost to put the final sheet of glass onto the pool (which was enormous and weighed a lot) was as expensive as the sheet of glass itself. But it was all the work of the building team, you know, we never talked to Leandro Erlich, we used the type of colours and materials and indications that he gave us, but that’s it, and the same is for Turrell. Turrell made one A4 sketch.
CD: Were those art pieces specially commissioned for the Museum?
DJP: (…)The programme was remarkably stable and constant. Erlich was added later and so was Turrell. Joop van Caldenborgh had this in mind because he had seen it in the Kanazawa Museum [the 21st Century Museum from Sanaa in Japan] where there is also a Turrell room. James Turrell gave one A4 on this tracing square paper, but it was precise in all its dimensions because he knows you know what you are doing. We did all the detailing, so the sharp edge and the rainwater drain and the roof that can be opened etc. Then when it all was finished, the hardware, Turrell did all the techniques behind it, which was a lot and I think he also indicated these benches, which are heated and the floor, which is slightly bent, so that the water runs away. In fact, we also did a lot of work for the artists.
CD: The rooftop is an artwork of engineering, composed of 115,000 aluminium tubes that reflect the indirect sunlight. It quickly became the museum’s trademark. For the first time in history, this could be combined with LED-lighting. Managing light has always been a central theme for art spaces. Can you explain more about these technical innovations?
DJP: Long before I had a green light for daylight, I knew what I wanted, which also came from the idea of a private collection.
In 1987, I had the opportunity to travel on a government grant for three months through the United States and I had seen the Menil Museum in Houston, Texas, just before it opened. I was writing a lot for Dutch magazines. Perhaps what I consider myself as the best article, was on this new Museum and what it meant in the overall work of Renzo Piano. Also, this is important, it was in my opinion for the first time that they used not the northern light but reflected southern light and this always struck me. I know that in ’87 I wrote, ‘whenever you’re going to build a museum, why shouldn’t you just take that system because you can’t improve it. This is the best roof.’ There I was wrong. Fortunately. Because there are two big improvements that we have made. One is that in the Menil they get an incredible heat load, so they need air conditioning like hell. But with the oil prices in Texas, they just don’t care, but we can’t do that in the Netherlands, it would be crazy and it’s also not so good for the art to let all the heat in and then to get it out artificially.
So instead of having the glass roof here and the light filter underneath, we reversed it so that we never have direct sunlight on the glass roof, which is much better for the potential heat load (…)
I think the reflected sunlight belongs to a private collection, because in your house or in your office or wherever you put it up, you stock it, the light also changes, right? So, you are not asked for a perfect grey floor and a completely neutral daylight, because if you want that, you can replace it more easily with LED light or any artificial light, which is the right sort of balance in the colour.
So why would you use daylight then? Daylight needs to be alive and if you have the northern light and there is a cloud before the sun, you will never see it, with reflected southern light instead, if there is a cloud before the sun, you’ll notice the changes of light. The end of the day in autumn is set up so you are aware of liveliness and you see the more orange colour. So, I thought it was very appropriate to do that, and I also like the liveliness of it. That is how we designed the tube : (…)what we did is cut off this piece so that this reflected light comes in more easily and spreads evenly, rather than being directed vertically. (…)
‘Daylight needs to be alive’
So, once we had that emblematic design feature, the sort of pervasive element, and we had the idea of reflected southern light, we did a lot of tests, you know, big ones, small ones. And then the integration with the necessary artificial light came up. Andrew Sedgwick of Arup, who did a lot of Renzo Piano museums came up with the idea to have relatively small LED lights of high quality and they’re very strong. (…)
Very often architects start to mess up with TL and with spots that are in rails, which was the old fashioned way of doing it, but it’s a lot of disturbance and we only wanted to have the white roof and the velum, you know, which spread the light. So, then the idea came up that we would integrate those lights in the mullions of the roof and they would shine up to the roof and then the light would come down. So, it’s a very soft replacement of the daylight which may lack if there’s not enough of it.
(…) Then a third thing happened that while the client was having his first contacts and contracts with the loan providers, they asked him to guarantee that they wouldn’t go over 200 Lux [a measure of the intensity of light] with the artworks, which was lower than we had assumed. (…)
The daylight in Holland is between almost zero if it is a dark night and a hundred thousand in June, so if you have a hundred thousand Lux and you need to cut that to 500 or 700 Lux, that is 0,5 promille. That’s a lot of reduction. It’s almost blinding out. If you have to reduce that even further, you have a problem, so finally we needed to have moving parts. It’s like a diaphragm. (…) Until now I know no better rule which does everything so simply. (…)
CD: Each architectural project is a new adventure for its creator. Could you share with us a particular challenge you had to deal with in this project?
DJP: There were so many in this case. So, first of all, it was a challenge for us both, the client and myself. I’ve compared it with the final work you do in school, that you want to be the best architecture ever made, you know. In fact, you should get rid of that because it doesn’t help you.
The design process, after all, is characterised by mutual fear. Fear from the client that it’s not going to be the best and, fear for yourself, whether I could live up to the high expectations. That was hard. And then the design is relatively easy, but then the detailing. As I explained the idea of the light, is quite simple but to make it real is very hard and to keep up the level of precision to the end is also something. I had a wonderful team on it.
Also, you know, we did great things and sometimes it’s the craziness of the client [that pushes you forward]. For instance, at a certain moment, Mr.van Caldenborgh saw the drawing (…) and then he said, ‘What are these strange dots?’ I said, ‘Those are the columns’. ‘I don’t want columns!’. The structural engineer started to laugh because there was a roof of about 10 meters (…) We were so crazy all of us that we finally put the weight of the roof on the mullions of the windows, but that is a structurally very insane thing to do (…) and it escaped all regular schemes of a structural engineer, so it had to be tested especially by the TU Delft [Delft University of Technology]. Those were challenges, but they’re very fun to do. Finally, he had his facade without columns, you know. (…)
We went very far in avoiding the design of all the extras like the alarms, the smoke meters… (…) because in earlier projects, sometimes this went wrong, we defined about 70 elements, basically electronic elements, and all of it has gone or it has been hidden within the museum. (…)
CD: The tension between the architect’s desire for an artistic statement of their own, and the art lover’s desire for a building that best highlights the art, is not new. Architecture has increasingly contributed to a museum’s reputation, recently, becoming even more of a hot topic. What do you think about this debate?
DJP: Yes, well there is a spectrum, of course, between what has become known as the ‘Bilbao effect’ because of the Guggenheim Foundation, but, except for a few Serras, I think it’s a very difficult museum to exhibit art. It does exhibit itself (…) I don’t like that for two reasons. It is a mistake to design a museum to impress. The museum is there basically to give you the experience of art, the museum itself, and the environment, but nobody tells you that the museum should be the dominant factor in that. I understand that if you have to lift up an old area where the factor environment is a bit poor, you can lift it up by the expression of a museum (…) It was well done in the Louvre Lens for instance (…) which is still subtle and sober and does have an opinion on how you exhibit the artefacts. But I think there’s a balance between the 3D environment, the art and the museum, and you know, I think at Voorlinden we have proved that a museum, which is serving art is not necessarily an insignificant piece of architecture. On the contrary. I’m not agreeing, but I have heard very often, ‘We like the museum better than the collection’, which is not the aim of the museum but apparently, people understand the refinement of it and its dimensions and the purity.
CD: Voorlinden museum became for sure a new emblem in the region.
‘It is a mistake to design a museum to impress’
CD: In your opinion, what is the nature of the art museum of the 21st century and what are its needs?
DJP: It is, of course, a very difficult question to look ahead, but you see tendencies, and, of course, in the museums that are government-run, you see the need, especially in the Netherlands after all the cuts we have had in budgets, to commercialize themselves. This is not necessarily only negative because people were happy only by having a museum, but they didn’t look at their visitors at all, and now they do, but in some cases, it comes close to a sort of a permanent carnival where everything is sacrificed in order to get the public in and to make money.
Pursuing this sense of experiment has two ends; one, let’s call it Wagnerian, is a sort of what you see in the casinos in Las Vegas. It’s an impression you cannot escape. If I see the Fountains at the Bellagio, I also start crying, I mean it’s so impressive, with the music, and all the water and the colours, but this is Wagner in the sense, you know, it is a sort of tearjerker. The other thing is where you, yourself, are still the master of your own experience. You can decide whether to be moved or not. Maybe it’s a very long tradition between let’s say, Rembrandt or Vermeer. The latter doesn’t ask you to be moved, he just depicts ‘the silence’ of his interior. Rembrandt is exposing emotions and wants the attention of the beholder, the one who looks at it. So, possibly we will have two types of museums, those who are, you know, spreading out almost like an airport, crying for attention and for permanent experience and, by definition, there will be a counter-current minority of silent museums. (…)
I think the Voorlinden is a bit of both, they are very user-friendly and open to the public, and they do everything to enhance your experience. And at the same time, it’s a museum where there is a sense of silence. (…)
link to podcast
Photographs: Kraaijvanger Architects, Rotterdam the Netherlands
interview by Cynthia Deckers, architect