“Let’s you and him fight!”

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Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam, with addition to left. (Cycletours Holidays)

That was my first reaction to this essay by Aaron Betsky criticizing Rem Koolhaas, two icons of modernism. In “The BASEST form of architecture,” Betsky takes aim at Koolhaas’s installation (meaning a temporary gallery) in what may be the world’s most ridiculous addition to an art museum. It is a bathtub plopped down, in Amsterdam, next to the city’s venerable Stedelijk Museum, around the corner from its famous Rijksmuseum, as yet undefaced by a new modernist wing. The latter museum features primarily classical works, with modern art featured in the former.

The summary of Betsky’s article reads “After a recent visit, Aaron Betsky thinks that Rem Koolhaas has made a mess out of a great art collection.” How could he tell? The gallery is named BASE, allegedly because it is in the basement of the addition. A video in which all is revealed may be viewed at the end of Betsky’s article, and lasts about 8½ minutes.

Betsky criticizes how jammed up against each other are the works hung on white metal panels, arrayed in cockeyed fashion, including some that lean slightly in this or that direction, for no apparent reason.

What you get in the basement level is pure chaos. The curators and installers have jammed so many objects together that you can’t properly see those Malevichs through the Mondrians and vice versa. I tried to take in giant set pieces, such as a two-panel Clyfford Still painting, and could not get far enough away from it to see its outlines, especially as the edges were obscured by people trying to look at other canvases hanging just inches away from it.

Betsky prefers the original exhibit space, where works were spread out on white walls, also apparently temporary, that turn at 90-dgree angles and stand up straight. Betsky’s preference makes sense to me. However, he is a critic who claims to understand modern architecture and Koolhaas is a modernist architect. The important thing, here as in Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, is not how boldly the art rejects tradition – that’s old hat – but how boldly its exhibition space rejects tradition. Betsky should applaud Koolhaas’s gallery, or explain why his principles do not pertain here.

Betsky’s article includes a mustn’t-miss video in which a camera wanders through Koolhaas’s gallery space, appearing to cock a snook at everything Betsky says in his article. The video demonstrates how silly is the very idea of a gallery of modern art. Whether the works are widely spaced or bunched together, tilted or squared, their very inanity proves how far art has fallen this past century. And maybe I am projecting my own opinion onto the behavior of the gallery’s visitors, but it seemed to me that they were bored by it, too. The main difference is that if they were sniggering, they kept it to themselves. Still, the funny people strolling through the gallery are priceless.

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Shot of museum highlighting Benthem Crouwel’s 2012 addition. (Jannes Linders)

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About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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