History of the museum building
The Groninger Museum is well-known for its exceptional and colourful building and also because of its fascinating exhibitions and intriguing collection.The Groninger Museum has proven over the years that a museum can be a place for both study and relaxation. It is bursting with artistic energy, which is obvious as you pass by.
The Groninger Museum reopend in 1994. Right from the outset, it was certain that the new Groninger Museum would be designed by several architects. Alessandro Mendini chose designers and architects for this purpose: Philipe Starck, Michele de Lucchi and Coop Himmelb(l)au.
Decoration and Redesign
If there is no hierarchy in expressions of art and culture, the various disciplines and cultural expressions can easily be intermingled. There is no distinction between the different activities. Visual art, sculpture, drama, clothes, science: everything can be imposed upon everything else so that a new entity can arise. This is the key characteristic of 20th-century Postmodernism.
Mendini held the opinion that everything has been done before, so the only thing that remains is reapplication. To him, various painting styles, such as Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism, provided a rich source of inspiration. For example, for the Groninger Museum he reprocessed a door latch by Gropius (Bauhaus) as an example of Functionalism. To this he added a terrazzo motif: a typical Italian product of inlaid work for floors etc.
Mendini regarded the application of decoration as something deeply rooted in humankind. In contrast to the Functionalists, who reject decoration because it hides the function and who therefore create impersonal mass products, he wishes to emphasise, by means of decoration, that everything and everyone can be individually different. In the museum building, the cheerfully coloured tiles on the exterior and the mosaics at the entrance and on the staircase are striking examples of this decorative urge.
Mendini’s ideas on breaching traditional classifications almost automatically lead to practical collaboration with other artists, designers and architects. This is also due to the fact that he was eager to work with various disciplines and techniques that he himself has not mastered. In addition to collaborating with other designers, another important driving force is his wish to supervise and discover young talent. For example, he supervised Atelier Mendini: with architects, jewellery designers, watch designers for Swatch, domestic products for Alessi, theatre performances, fashion shows and video clips.
Mendini asked invited three guest architects to design pavilions for the new Groninger Museum: the Italian designer Michele de Lucchi, Philippe Starck from Paris, and Coop Himmelb(l) au from Vienna. Mendini also worked with Dutch architects and designers such as the Groningen architectural office Team 4, Albert Geertjes and Geert Koster. For the large-scale revitalisation in 2010, the Groninger Museum appointed another three top designers, all approved by Mendini, of course. Dutch designers Maarten Baas and Studio Job and the Spanish designer Jaime Hayon laid out three new spaces in the museum: the Mendini Restaurant, the Job Lounge and the Info Center.
Architects and designers
The Groninger Museum resembles an elongated island consisting of three large volumes in the water, connected by passageways and plazas. As a consequence of the City Council’s demand for transparency, in connection with the view of the immediate neighbours, and for space for the ships in the canal, the central pavilion had to be stretched out and divided into smaller segments. Furthermore, the pedestrian bridge, with a lifting section for the inland shipping, had to be integrated in the museum.
On the station side of the Museum Island, there is a magnet-like blue gateway that gives entry to the lift bridge and the walking route to the city centre. This bridge has been named after H.N. Werkman, who was a major artist in the De Ploeg artist collective in Groningen. Anyone walking or cycling across this bridge does not realise that he or she is passing over a work of art. The underside of the bridge is covered with stickers by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. These are cartoons, based on 17th-century emblems also found on Old Dutch tiles. In this way, Delvoye’s work refers to all the collections in the museum: the old paintings, the collection of ceramics, including the delftware and, due to the modern comic-strip elements, also the present-day art. This work of art can only be viewed when the bridge is open, and from the city side.
The sculpture that is situated exactly in the middle of the piazza, directly in front of the museum entrance, was designed by Atelier Mendini. It is a gift from the Association of Friends of the Groninger Museum. It is the building in reduced form, set on its end and doubled so that the front and rear sides are the same. An abstract figure of the museum has thus been created. The head is formed by the round Starck Pavilion, to which a smiley has been attached. A circular bench has been placed at the foot. The names of the pavilions are given on the various segments, along with the functions assigned to them. The sculpture is thus multifunctional: besides being a work of art it is also a point of rest and a signpost.
The Golden Tower
The central part of the building was entirely designed by Alessandro Mendini and it forms the heart of the museum. The entrance is here, through which every visitor comes and goes. Here are the public facilities such as the museum shop and the café. The lower part accommodates general museum areas such as an auditorium, a children’s studio, the Info Center and a reception area; in short, the functions that are not directly oriented to the exhibition of objects.
In this central part, the golden tower is the most prominent feature. A flag flies at the top, mostly bearing a design by Mendini and sometimes one by the guest architects. The golden tower has no windows and cannot be accessed by the public, as Mendini originally envisaged this part as the depot for the artworks. He deliberately positioned the depot in the centre of the museum, so that it would be given due prominence. Generally, a museum depot is behind the main building or in the basement, out of sight as much as possible. Mendini made it a symbol that you simply cannot ignore.
The colour of the exterior cladding of moulded laminate was specially developed for the museum by Abet, and refers to the ‘treasures’ inside. The golden tower is visible from afar. As a result, the museum has become a modern cathedral, as it were, with a matching high tower filled with art.
On the outside the Mendini Pavilions are completely clad with the so-called ‘Proust Motif’. Mendini first applied this motif in his Chair for Proust, dating from 1979. This chair was a redesign of a 19th-century kitsch easy chair. During the designing process he recalled the French author Marcel Proust, who had a painting by the French pointillist Paul Signac hanging on his wall. Mendini took a part of that painting, enlarged it, projected in on the chair and painted the design on to the chair.
Besides decorative motifs, colours are an important means for Mendini to create various atmospheres. In the non-exhibition spaces, such as the entrance hall upstairs and downstairs and in the corridors, he uses soft salmon-coloured shades in order to realise a friendly ambience. These colours are close to the tint of human skin. In the auditorium, reddish shades are used. All kind of different colours are used to decorate the exhibition rooms. Sometimes these colours are selected from Mendini’s colour palette or from the colour system developed by the Dutch artist Peter Struycken. For certain temporary exhibitions other suitable, totally different colour schemes are also often applied.
Once inside, the first thing you will notice is the artwork which was designed by François Morellet for the museum’s lobby. The half-ovals – titled Breasts, clouds and seagulls – correspond with the oval-shaped piazzas and entrance roofing.
The staircase is not only functional, but is also a work of art in itself. The stairwell is coated with small mosaic stones that were applied manually by specialists from the Italian firm of Bisazza. Mendini deliberately wished to use the staircase as an idea-carrier. In traditional museum buildings, visitors usually take the stairs upward to the collection, in line with the idea that art is elevated above everyday things. Mendini inverts this notion: you should go downward to see art at the same level as the water.
The spiral staircase was designed by the main architect Alessandro Mendini. While descending the stairs, one passes a crystal ball topping the pillar on the way down, which radiates all kinds of different colours, thus heralding the amazing things yet to be discovered in our colourful museum. This crystal ball – also designed by Mendini and in fact the largest one ever produced by the renowned Swarovski Company – also indicates the exact centre point of the building.
The connecting corridors
The corridors that connect the museum pavilions to one another have semicircular alcoves that give a view of the water and the surroundings. They have a somewhat medieval character and resemble passageways in churches or cloisters. The corridors are essential to move from one pavilion to the next, due to the elongated shape of the museum. The oval rooms are deliberate breaches of these long passages, because Mendini saw them as an integrated part of the museum ambience and not as dull walkways like in the subway or in large office blocks.
One of these oval rooms nestles in the corridor that leads to the pavilions designed by guest architects De Lucchi and Starck. The shape is identical to that of the roofing above the entrance and the illuminated artwork in the entrance hall. On the other side of the staircase, towards the Mendini Pavilions, there is also a similar oval room but it lies in a longitudinal direction.
Our tour of the museum now starts in western direction – when standing with your back to wall, please turn right.
The Job Lounge – located directly opposite the Info Center – was designed by Studio Job. This designer duo consisting of Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel was already abundantly represented in the collection of the museum, and has been supported and followed by the museum since 2001. For this space, Nynke Tynagel and Job Smeets of Studio Job were inspired by 19th-century private clubs with wooden floors and chandeliers. To gain more inspiration, they made a series of orientation trips to the fading glory of classical hotels, bars and beer halls. The Job Lounge is an ironic elaboration of an elite world that is rapidly vanishing. The various designs in the space are quotes from Studio Job’s own work: cast bronze, stained glass in lead, ceramics, marquetry, papier maché, rusty iron woven textile and expensive Venini glass. Everything has been implemented with the greatest expertise and looks stylish and high-class. But the easy chairs are made of plastic, the thick curtains are no more than a print on photographic material, and the lights have the shape of glass ‘breasts’. A rusty pillar inspired by the shape of a sewage pipe occupies the middle of the area. At the entrance, a bronze fountain seems to keep dripping, while skeletons are standing on the inlaid woodwork of the bar. The exclusive parquet floor is a confusing, inlaid labyrinth.
The Info Center, accessible via the west oval rooms, was designed by Jaime Hayon and was realised during the revitalisation in 2010. A real eye-catcher is the large mirror on the ceiling, which splendidly reflects the surrounding water. As a result, the space is extremely light, which is very pleasant in an educational environment.
The space also contains a large table with several lob-shaped extensions, a multi-touch screen and various other screens providing programmes about the collection. Hayon himself calls it a space for research and in-depth study that offers visitors the opportunity to slip away into their own high-tech information cocoon, embedded in privacy. However, while enjoying this privacy, one still remains connected with the other visitors via the large table. The table has a round, organic shape, without sharp corners on which you might hurt yourself. It is a sophisticated piece of woodwork, harbouring dozens of concealed cables inside. The ceramic sculptures of the designer connect the space with the Job Lounge on the opposite side of the oval room. In 2015 Jaime Hayon’s design was extended with a playful ‘activity’ area in the middle of the Info Center as well as an adjoining atelier.
De Lucchi Pavilion
Guest architect Michele de Lucchi designed the pavilion for archaeology and history as a bastion made of brick. As such, the construction refers to the history of the city. This location once accommodated fortifications that played an important role in the history of the city from the 17th century onwards.
Nowadays the permanent collection of the museum is exhibited in these rooms here. Paintings of famous Groningers, silver, masterpieces of the museum’s own painting collection, Modern and Postmodern art and design. The central rooms feature works by the Groningen De Ploeg artist collective and by affiliated Northern European Expressionists.
Philippe Starck designed the pavilion for applied art, which is situated above the De Lucchi Pavilion. In the practical execution of his design, Starck was supported by the Groningen designer Albert Geertjes. The building contains numerous symbolic references. The round shape represents a dish on a potter’s wheel, the cracks in the floor and walls reflect the craquelure in earthenware on an enlarged scale. The colour grey refers to clay, of which pottery is made.
Along the curved wall there is an ongoing showcase mounted against on the wall. Referring to the slinging motion of a dish on a potter’s wheel, this showcase is not uniformly deep. In addition, translucent white room-high veils divide Starck’s round pavilion into a labyrinth-like space, thus creating the atmosphere of a voyage of discovery in a fairy-tale world. It is not possible to grasp the entire layout at a glance, and the transparency gives only a hint of what lies behind the curtains.
The showcases in the middle are shaped like ice blocks. Ice represents the ideal manner of conservation. Originally Starck had considered real ice blocks but the necessary cooling system was much too unwieldy for the space.
A large globe made of glass occupies the centre of the space. This was also designed by Starck. It shows the trading routes of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) from the Netherlands to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) and the Far East. Besides tea and silk, the VOC traded in porcelain from China and later from Japan. China produced this porcelain for the Dutch market, on commission. Later, this blue-white porcelain was imitated in Delft, and called ‘delftware’.
On your way to the other eastern half of the museum, you will once again pass the central staircase. Opposite it, the museum auditorium is located, which was also designed by Alessandro Mendini. The Mendini pavilions are two corresponding exhibition areas with exactly the same layout on two separate connecting floors, intended for temporary exhibitions and presentations. The circuit of rooms – in both Mendini pavilions – is based on the classical prototype of the first museums, and in particular of the Karl Friedrich Schinkels Altes Museum in Berlin, which dates from 1823. At the centre there is a large central space, and series of rooms are grouped on three sides, with passageways in the middle. In this way, a so-called ‘enfilade’ system is created, with a number of rooms lying along a single line. As a result, the route is a logical one and easy for the visitor to comprehend. Mendini deliberately applied this classical-symmetrical system – as redesign – but specified that the passages had to be high enough to decorate them with modern trapezoid frames.
Coop Himmelb(l)au Pavilion
The Coop Himmelb(l)au Pavilion was designed as a blown-up sculpture on the pedestal of the Mendini Pavilions. It overhangs this pedestal at various points. This pavilion deviates from the classical-harmonious and symmetrical architecture of Mendini, De Lucchi and Starck. Everything seems to lie at sixes and sevens. The colours in the pavilion are those of the materials themselves: the grey of the concrete, the red of the steel and the black of the tar. The construction material consists of concrete, steel and – there where these materials do not meet – glass. The architecture of Coop Himmelb(l)au is considered to be a typical exponent of the Deconstructivist movement, which opposes all architectonical Constructivist traditions regarding functional material use and development of buildings. And that’s exactly what sets them apart: Deconstructivists aim to intentionally tear all traditional building elements and materials out of their normal classical coherence. Thus, a window can be fit into a floor and the distinction between walls and ceilings, inside and outside, is – to a large degree – thrown overboard.
The largest part of the pavilion was built at a shipyard in the east of the Province of Groningen and towed to the museum through the Verbindingskanaal (Connecting Canal). References to ships are easy recognised, not only in the visible material but also in the shapes of the building. There are gantries both inside and outside the pavilion. The gantry that cuts right through the pavilion can even be raised at one end, just as is the case with a real ship.
The black stains on the red elements of the building are huge enlargements of the first sketch, which the architects produced with their eyes closed. Accordingly, the pattern refers to the genesis of the pavilion itself.
During the revitalisation in 2010, Maarten Baas completely redesigned and refurnished the entire total interior of the museum’s restaurant based on his Clay designs, which are now also part of the museum’s collection. He designed a number of new models especially for the museum. The founding of Studio Baas & Den Herder in 2005 enabled him to further elaborate his unique, hand-made items and to produce them on a larger scale. Baas moulded every chair himself. Just like a child playing with clay, he wanted to create a rapidly improvised figure. The combination of a steel frame with synthetic clay made this possible.
The colour of the chairs, somewhere between green and yellow, permeates the clay. The slight variations in colour and form are particularly interesting. With these, Baas retains his sketch-like, improvised signature. His Clay furniture is a response to the stifling definition of perfection. Every chair in the Mendini Restaurant is handmade and thus unique, just as the lights and the mirrors are.
Our museum shop – located opposite the restaurant, on the other side of the entrance hall – offers a wide selection of books, picture postcards as well as design objects.