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Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, the Netherlands

Updated on April 27, 2017
The Bonnefanten Museum, designed by Aldo Rossi
The Bonnefanten Museum, designed by Aldo Rossi | Source

In the city of Maastricht, the Maas river is a main artery, a connective corridor that for centuries has served as a focal point for settlement, trade and tourism. Look down at the rippling skyline reflected in the water and you'll find a blend of old and new architecture, a mingling of Medieval stone structures with contemporary glass and steel buildings. One of the most striking forms standing on the east bank of the Maas is the Bonnefanten Museum designed by Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931-1997).

The museum occupies a site that was formerly home to the Sphinx/Societe Ceramique ceramics factory. A number of industrial buildings were demolished in 1990 to make way for a new residential development called the "Ceramique Project" designed by Dutch architect Jo Coenen. The planned community constructed on prime riverside real estate includes a library, theatre, school, offices, various apartment complexes, shops and restaurants. At the centre of the development, the Bonnefanten Museum adds to the modern feel of the neighbourhood, while serving as custodian of the region's rich past .

The Bonnefanten Museum occupies a prime spot overlooking the Maas River
The Bonnefanten Museum occupies a prime spot overlooking the Maas River | Source
Detail of the dome and pipe
Detail of the dome and pipe | Source
Towers of the Helpoort, the medieval gate to the city of Maastricht
Towers of the Helpoort, the medieval gate to the city of Maastricht | Source
Circular skylight
Circular skylight | Source
Staircase leading to the exhibitions
Staircase leading to the exhibitions | Source

Rossi's vision

Aldo Rossi posed this question:

" Is the museum a collection of mementoes of life or is it itself a part of our lives? My architecture leaves an open verdict in this regard."

His design for the Bonnefanten leaves much to the imagination of the viewer, but the notion of museum as cultural symbol with strong connections to both the past and the present is embodied by the building, with its familiar references and strange elements that are at once reassuring and puzzling. Rossi's work is both sober and whimsical, classical and modern.

The tubular tower with its whitewashed base, zinc-clad cupola and circular belvedere has instant associations and could be called a silo, a watchtower, a domed church, a turret, a spaceship, without conforming to any of these. Rossi spent time sketching in various parts of the city of Maastricht in the initial phase of the project and his drawings illustrate segments of the stone walls that once served as fortification for the city. In the 13th century, the ramparts and gates to the city were constructed as protection against invaders. When one walks through the old Helpoort, the towers dating from 1229 are a tangible reminder of the defence of Maastricht as a strategic military stronghold on the river. Rossi's Bonnefanten tower repeats the shape in recognition of the guardian role of the museum and as a nod to a specific monumental landmark in the city. Protection, preservation and security are bound to the function of the museum building as safekeeper of heritage.

The main entrance for the museum is tucked away at the back of the building. The visitor is forced to walk around the museum facade to pass through a steel door that bears the generic label "Museum." The slight detour from the scenic riverside path to the rear of the building helps to build expectation, and once inside, the soaring four-storey high ceiling and luminous space make a good first impression. A circular opening or oculus in the roof allows natural light to accent the stone and brick walls, steel beams and keruing wood floors. Rossi designed the foyer on the model of a telescope, with the suggestion of a lens focused on the entering visitor.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Bonnefanten interior layout is the large, steep staircase that bisects the building and leads to the exhibition halls. Visitors are required to climb and choose a route for exploring the galleries, turning either right or left from the central steps. The galleries extending on either side of the stairs are dead-end streets that force you to retrace your steps, viewing displays twice as you come and go. The awkwardness of the spatial arrangement is rather annoying for gallery-goers who are used to a circular flow-through in modern museums, but the intent is to slow the viewer down and encourage a lingering gaze rather than a quick take.

At the very top of the staircase, the visitor is rewarded by gaining access to the inside of the cupola. The entire surface of the interior is covered with a continuous white line drawn on a black background - an amazing work by Sol LeWitt entitled "Spiral #801". The effect is dizzying as you look up and trace the circular pattern around the room.

Aldo Rossi was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1990.

His international projects include:

  • San Cataldo Cemetery, Modena Italy, 1971
  • Carlo Felice Teatro, Genoa, Italy, 1981
  • Palazzo Hotel, Fukuoka, Japan, 1986-89
  • Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, The Netherlands, 1990-94
  • Quartier Schutzenstrasse, Berlin, Germany, 1994-98
  • Ca' di Cozzi, Verona, Italy, 1997 (his last project)

Aldo Rossi died in a car accident in Milan in September 1997.

Unearthing Artifacts

During the early construction phase for the Bonnefanten Museum, I was living in a town near the city of Maastricht and travelled by train to the centre to go to the weekly market. It was 1991, and among the many buildings in progress in the Ceramique district, Aldo Rossi's proposed museum was attracting plenty of attention as the avant-garde centrepiece, the jewel in the crown for the whole city. There was one aspect of the building process that caused delays. When bulldozers started to dig a hole in preparation for the foundation for the museum, artifacts buried on the east bank of the Maas were unearthed. A Medieval shoe, a gold Roman pin, a Spanish helmet from the 1600s, porcelain from the 1850s - the treasures kept coming daily from a spot that had been inhabited since the fourth century. The museum erected a temporary exhibition hall in order to display the most recent archaeological finds. As the glass cases filled up with objects retrieved from the building site, Rossi's conceptual drawings and maquette seemed to glow with an aura of excitement.

The design of the building is symmetrical and forms an E-shape
The design of the building is symmetrical and forms an E-shape

Sol LeWitt "Spiral #801" created at Bonnefanten

"Maastricht" 1996,  an original block print by Aldo Rossi
"Maastricht" 1996, an original block print by Aldo Rossi | Source
John the Baptist, 1320 woodcarving
John the Baptist, 1320 woodcarving | Source

An Eclectic Collection

The Bonnefanten's permanent collection includes historic artifacts and contemporary paintings and sculptures. The highlights include a large Brueghel painting from the early 1600s, 250 multiples, photos and posters by Joseph Beuys, a steel sculpture by Richard Serra and a series of Flemish woodcarvings from the Middle Ages.

Private donors have enriched the museum's holdings. Willem Neuteling's collection of 200 ivory, enamel, alabaster and bronze objects dating from the Medieval period represents a significant donation that expands the museum's displays of regional works. The collectors Jeanne and Charles Vandenhove donated 300 contemporary paintings and sculptures to the Bonnefanten in 2007. There is an emphasis on Arte Povera and Minimalism, with works by Luc Tuymans, Luciano Fabro, Robert Ryman, Gary Hume, Robert Mangold, Jan Dibbets and Marcel Broodthaers included in the Bonnefanten's permanent collection.

Pieter Brueghel the younger, "Census at Bethlehem" 1605-1610
Pieter Brueghel the younger, "Census at Bethlehem" 1605-1610 | Source
Luc Tuymans "Dough" 2005 at Bonnefanten Museum
Luc Tuymans "Dough" 2005 at Bonnefanten Museum | Source
The collection includes contemporary works by local and international artists
The collection includes contemporary works by local and international artists

A Place for Musing

The original meaning of the word "museum" is derived from the Greek "mouseion" meaning a place sacred to the Muses. Aldo Rossi's Bonnefanten Museum offers the visitor a building inspired by memory, space and light where musing over objects is encouraged. One comes away from the Bonnefanten feeling renewed by the convergence of past, present, and future in a unique, unforgettable setting.


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