After 30 years, director Hendrik Driessen leaves the museum he created in Tilburg: museum De Pont. This farewell also marks almost 30 years of collaboration between the museum, the Foundation de Pont, and Benthem Crouwel Architects, who were involved from the very beginning. Benthem Crouwel Architects’ founding partner Mels Crouwel and project architect Peter Kropp in conversation with Hendrik Driessen about three decades of working together.
The experimental phase was truly special
Hendrik Driessen was a director without a museum, when Benthem Crouwel Architects won the competition to transform an old wool mill in Tilburg into a museum for contemporary art. The goal was to create a space that would be the home to a unique, high quality collection – a collection that did not exist yet, and also needed to be built from scratch.
Hendrik Driessen: “We specifically did not want an architect who would just come to us with a finished proposal. Because we were starting from zero, we wanted to work with a firm who would explore the possibilities with us.”
Mels Crouwel: “And that’s exactly how we wanted to work. At the start of the project, we had a lot of time to examine the space and analyze its potential. After the old machinery was removed, we painted the floor a light grey and put in some dividing walls. We borrowed some art from the van Abbe Museum and moved it around, just to get an idea what the factory would look like as an exhibition space. This was very much a phase of experimentation, where we would try out stuff to see if it worked. We were very lucky to be in this testing phase for almost a year.”
Hendrik Driessen: “It was kind of hard to imagine at first. But the thorough process resulted in a beautiful space that now feels timeless. We were really making this space together, in co-creation.”
Peter Kropp: “This experimental phase was truly special. I joined the project as a young architect, and it was really formative for my career – I kind of grew up working on it, and it led to several other museum projects that I am very proud to have worked on.”
A big success
The museum and its collection quickly became a big success: beloved by the public and highly valued by the artists who exhibit their work. Benthem Crouwel Architects’ design for the space is subdued, serene and respectful of the factory’s history: the architecture is there to let the art shine and be discovered. Called ‘one of the most beautiful museums’ by Marlene Dumas, and mentioned as a source of inspiration by former Tate Modern director Nicholas Serrota, its collection ranks among the most important in Europe.
When something is good, it's good
BCA has designed numerous adjustments and expansions for the museum over the years – a new auditorium, some small exhibition spaces, a new depot for the ever growing collection, when in 2014 they were commissioned by museum De Pont to create an extension to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. Around the same time, the municipality of Tilburg asked BCA to create a new entrance area to make the museum more visible. A new restaurant and a new exhibition wing were added, and in the empty forecourt of the museum became a worthy entrance with the construction of the ‘follies’, entrance gates that give the museum a recognizable face.
Hendrik Driessen: “We never felt the need to shop around for a different architect. I mean, when something is good, it’s good – why change that? I believe in developing long standing relationships. It’s the same with the artists that are in our collection, but even the decorator who paints the museum and our graphic designer have been with us these 30 years. It’s how I work.”
Peter Kropp: “You have to realize though, that a lot of the work we did on the museum over the years, was actually behind the scenes. There’s nothing spectacular about a good ventilation system, working toilets or a new roof. But they are all necessary to keep the museum functioning and to give visitors a good experience. All these projects small and large define our long partnership.”
It's all about trust
When asked about the defining characteristic of three decades of collaboration, all three of them say the same thing: it’s all about trust.
Mels Crouwel: “We decided everything together. Sometimes we took risks together. That only works if there is a strong foundation of trust.”
Peter Kropp: “The personal relationship, based on mutual trust and confidence in each other has been very special to me.”
Hendrik Driessen: “Of course we did not always agree on everything. But if you trust each other, there can be an open discussion and the end result will be beautiful.”
We are very proud
One final project is being delivered this summer: the small buildings on the street side of the museum are renovated and converted into functional, high quality studios. ‘Atelier De Pont’ will be a multi-functional studio space to be used by artists in residence, but also by other (local) initiatives in need of creative space. Does the museum now feel finished?
Mels Crouwel: “The studios connect the museum even more to the city. We are very proud so far. We will see what the future will bring.”
Hendrik Driessen: “At the end of my time with the museum, I feel that together we have accomplished everything we wanted, and created the museum we envisioned at the very beginning. I don’t know what my successor will be doing. But it’s a bit like raising your kids - once they’ve grown up, you have to let them go. The museum turned out so well that the letting go is not so hard.”