The bicycle passage of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum

I’ve shown you the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum bicycle “tunnel” on my blog before. Already explaining that it is an underpass and not a tunnel. But is that even true? When you look at it from the inside of the museum you realise that it is almost like a ‘tube’ going right through the building. The museum is all around it, not only on top and to the sides, but also underneath it!

One of the two atriums with the windows to the cycle passage in the background. The other atrium can be reached by walking under the cycle passage. (Picture Amsterdam Rijksmuseum)

The Amsterdam people fought a long battle to keep the cycle passage through the Rijksmuseum when the museum was restored last. That restoration took over 10 years and it was finished in 2013. The passage was reopened that same year. When you use that underpass you are on the outside of the museum, but right in the heart of it. When you cycle in the passage, you have the feeling that you are on solid ground, because the pavers from the squares in front of the museum (and also behind it) continue in the passage. You can now look into the courtyards on either side of the passage through windows that were only added in that last restoration. Before, the passage had a closed wall at either side. What you do not realise, however, is that the museum extends to underneath your bicycle! Both courtyards, that are covered with a glass roof and which the museum calls ‘atrium’, are connected with an underpass under the bicycle passage. The best way to see that is from inside the museum. When I visited the museum some weeks ago, I had to wait for the people who I was with to get their coats from the cloakroom and it suddenly struck me how invasive that bicycle passage really is. So I got my phone out and filmed people passing by on their bicycles and on foot. I think it is mesmerizing how they are on the outside inside the museum.

Video showing people passing by on foot and on their bicycles from inside the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum.

The courtyards were original to the 1885 building of Dutch architect Cuypers, as was the passage. The courtyards had already been covered with a glass roof, but they had never been connected. They were used as exhibition area, but the Spanish architects of the latest restoration wanted to connect them and use them as a main entrance hall. The architects would have loved to remove the bicycle passage to create one large court yard, but that didn’t happen! That is why they lowered the floors below ground level and connected both courtyards under the bicycle passage. The light, polished Portuguese stone floors reflect the daylight coming in through the glass roofs. This gives the atrium a spacious look and feel. The added windows in the side walls of the passage enhance the open atmosphere and the end result is a really very beautiful entrance hall, albeit divided in two parts.

The passage without a floor during the reconstruction of the museum (Picture Bam)
This picture of the passage in 1971 shows that there were no windows yet in the side wall. It is much lighter and open now there are windows to look into the courtyards on either side of the passage. (Picture via Amsterdam Rijksmuseum)

On the website Inexhibit, Riccardo Bianchini, describes the courtyards as follows:

“The Atrium is a large entrance area, publicly accessible, created by covering two internal courtyards, encircled by the Cuypers’ brick buildings, and connected to one another by a gently-sloped tunnel, located underneath the main access passage.

The space conceived by Cruz y Ortiz copes with the imposing Gothic architecture of the old palace by juxtaposing clearly-contemporary elements to it so to establish a coherent visual and functional framework, where old and new can coexist.

Thus the decorated 19th century brick facades are counterbalanced by airy and visually light-weight elements, like the metal and glass roof, the two giant chandeliers overlooking the atrium and the pale-gray stone floor and cladding. The chandeliers play various roles: they perceptively ‘rescale’ the imposing height of the atrium to a more human scale, at the same time providing lighting and an acoustical correction, by reducing the, otherwise excessive, sound reverberation time within the halls.

Along with being visually excellent, the project also provides the museum with new, cutting-edge functional spaces, such as an auditorium, a shop and the “grand cafe”, as well as ticket and information desks and cloakrooms.”

Map of the groundfloor of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. The passage (I marked the outlines in red) goes straight through the middle, passing over the wardrode, the toilets, the ticket office and an underpass to get from one atrium to the other. (Picture Amsterdam Rijksmuseum)


The Rijksmuseum underpass in 2013. Clearly visible the windows to the court yard with the new main entrance hall.

18 thoughts on “The bicycle passage of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum

  1. Atrium is the official term for the spaces in the museum next to the tunnels. Courtyard is when it is an enclosed space outside…

  2. Hello Mark,
    NL Cycling is a tremendous and effective body of work. Much appreciated.

    Regarding the Rijksmuseum passage, I think, in light of your context, the word “invasive” in this sentence is not what you were looking for: “…it suddenly st[r]uck me how invasive that bicycle passage really is.” Invasive has negative connotations, as in “invasive species” or “invasion of privacy.” What Dutch word were you thinking of?

    Regarding the bicycle passage itself, I agree that it animates what would otherwise be among the most stultifying parts of any museum, the almost always overwrought entry sequence and the cafe spaces. Here, in both cases, one gets to look at a slice of unique city life that is unpretentious and diverting. It is the best possible solution to the problem, and one must salute the citizen-bicyclists who stood their ground and made it possible. It is what saves the space from being banal and overbearing.

    1. Yes, I know perfectly well that “invasive” has a negative connotation. That’s why I chose it. From the perspective of the museum that bicycle “tunnel” is invading their building, piercing right through it. I think in English when I write in English, so there was no word in Dutch that I was thinking about. But back to that intruder tunnel; the museum has come to terms with it. So everything is okay now and we can indeed all see it as a positive addition. St[r]uck was obviously a typo which I corrected.

      1. Too bad most of the words I know in Dutch are not engrained in my mind enough for me to think of the meaning directly from the word rather than translate. I don’t think of something like a hawk or blackbird if I hear vogel, I think of vogel, then bird, then what a bird is. It’s what made French so hard for me. I do think nederlands and think of the country rather than translating it back into English, same with a few other words, kanker actually comes to mind, ja does too but mainly because the meaning in English is the same. Kat, as it’s a cognate, and a few more.

        Ideally pedestrians and cyclists should not cross just wherever, traffic should be predictable, otherwise the larger participant in traffic should be slow and few in number. This is why shared use paths fail whenever A it’s designed as a footway where cycling is legal or B, when there are too many pedestrians who get in the way.

  3. That is fantastic.

    It is fitting that the Rijksmuseum features such a wonderful display of the Dutch Consensus Culture and Cycling Culture, even if it was unintentional.

  4. Hey Mark, I don’t think I’ve seen it elsewhere on your blog, but I was wondering what to do if I want to use one of your pictures or text or whatever (of course with the line saying “Made by Mark Wagenuur/BicycleDutch/FietsenNederland). Is that OK with you? Or being the Dutch man you are, about business, planning to go and file a claim with the courts (I’m joking, you aren’t all about business even in a country famed for it, nor are you likely to want to sue me unless I for example run over your bicycle).

  5. It actually looks quite odd from the inside, too dark, as if that architect was trying to hide it from patrons inside the RM. It should be lit up permanently in golden lights like the passage underneath, and then visitors inside could watch the living tapestry of Amsterdammers cycling past.

  6. Mark, I understand there was fear that the bikes in the tunnel would be constantly colliding with tourists, who wouldn’t be expecting them inside a museum. I haven’t heard how often such accidents happen, but when I ride through, as I do a few times a week, tourists always have their cameras pointed at the passing stream of cyclists. I’m sure visitors love it as much as I do.

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