The earliest plans for the Gemeentemuseum go right back to 1906. In 1914 the first director of the museum, H.E. van Gelder, wrote a policy paper setting out his ideas for the new institution. Unfortunately, the First World War intervened and it was not until 1919 that the city council of The Hague made a site available in Stadhouderslaan. Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934) was recruited as project architect and produced a grandiose design for a cultural centre that was to include not only a museum complex, but also concert and congress halls. In 1927 Berlage was commissioned to implement a more modest design and construction finally took place between 1931 and 1935.
Like all Berlage’s buildings, the Gemeentemuseum was built on the basis of a geometrical design system. Its floor plan is based on a 110 cm x 110 cm grid. The form of the building is generally based on a standard 11 cm module (or multiples of it). This standard module is seen in its most basic form in the yellow bricks that clothe the building’s concrete skeleton. Since 11 cm was not a standard size, the bricks were made to order by the NV. Kleiwarenfabriek Alfred Russel in Tegelen. Acting with the consent of Berlage, who was confident that they ‘would never do his name any dishonour’, the company subsequently marketed the yellow bricks as ‘Berlage bricks’.
The restful harmony of the building’s facades, despite the diversity of window types, is due to the standard 4 x 11 cm arrangement of the glazing bars. Like the casings of the doors and windows, the window frames are made of bronzed brass. The same material is also used in the display cases designed by Berlage for the museum’s decorative arts section. The design of these vitrines is based on the same standard 11 cm module as the museum building, ensuring that they harmonise not only with the exhibition spaces, but also with the articulation of the windows.
Today, just as in 1935, the museum is approached through a long, glass-walled walkway that gives visitors time to leave the bustle of the city streets behind them. On either side of the walkway is a pond reflecting the facade of the museum. At the entrance doors, visitors are welcomed by the figure of a woman designed by Hague sculptor J.C. Altorf (1876-1955) and representing the city of The Hague. Entering the main building, they find themselves in the lofty foyer, where they may not be immediately aware of the large limestone relief towering over them. This allegorical representation of art was designed by Willem van Konijnenburg (1868-1943). The central figure is once again a woman representing the city of The Hague, although here also standing for divine light. The five angelic figures appearing to support her nimbus symbolise the five sections that existed in the museum in 1935: older decorative arts, musical instruments, prints, the history of The Hague, and modern art. The populace are clustered at her feet and with her right hand she shows them the way to art. Hence the inscription ‘Eer het god’lijk licht in d’openbaringen van de kunst’ (‘Honour divine light in the revelations of art’).
The lofty verticality of the foyer is emphasised by the white-painted columns of the concrete skeleton, between which are inserted strips of tiling in bright yellow, red and green. Having absorbed all this, visitors can either carry straight on into the decorative arts section or turn left or right to take one of the two staircases leading up to the fine art galleries. The decision to locate the decorative arts at ground level was inspired by the contemporary museological belief that they were easier than the fine arts for the general public to understand and appreciate. An important feature of the decorative arts section is the set of period rooms. To accommodate their high ceilings, the floors of these period interiors of the seventeenth and eighteenth century are sunk below ground level.
Having mounted the stairs to the upper floor, visitors arrive in the grand reception area – the most luxuriously finished space in the whole building. Its architecture reveals Berlage’s fascination with crystalline shapes, reflected both in the faceted construction of the room and in details like its stepped articulation. The colourful tiling evokes the fairytale world of the Middle East, an association reinforced by the green-tiled, gold-framed gratings that conceal the hot air inlets from the central heating system. The room has an oak wainscot and its floor is faced with expensive marble slabs.
Thanks to the large-scale restoration of the late 1990s, visitors to the Gemeentemuseum are now able to see this last great Berlage masterpiece in exactly the same state as visitors did in 1935, when the museum had just opened. The building is as attractive today as it was then. Berlage’s design is not only an iconic example of Dutch museum architecture, but enjoys international regard as one of the most important twentieth-century museum buildings anywhere in the world.