Re-inventing the past

Passing through Amsterdam, it is impossible to ignore two of the city’s most impressive public buildings, the Central Station and the Rijksmuseum. Both of them have been built in the last decades of the 19th century, in a combination of Gothic and Flemish Renaissance style, and upon closer look they are strikingly similar as layout. What few people know is that both of them have been designed by the same person: Pierre Cuypers, an architect who left his mark on many Dutch cities through his numerous monumental projects.

Pierre Cuypers was born in 1827 in Roermond, in a practicing Catholic family. He would remain very attached to religion throughout his life. It was an exciting time for Dutch Catholics: after more than 200 years of marginalization, at the beginning of the 19th century they finally received equal rights with the Protestant community. They were able to practice their religion openly, and new monumental churches were built everywhere, to replace the ones that had been confiscated by the Protestants in the 16th century. Catholic associations, newspapers, schools and even political parties developed, playing an important role in 19th century Netherlands.

Pierre Cuypers brought a significant contribution to this religious renaissance. After completing his architecture studies in Antwerp, he returned to the Netherlands where he soon had a reputation as a church architect: he built more than 100 churches all around the country, most of them in the Gothic Revival style fashionable in that period. Moreover, in his native town he founded a workshop specializing in church furniture and ecclesiastical art, which became very popular in the second half of the 19th century.

He also contributed to the restoration of many historical buildings. His projects were quite controversial, since his goal was to rebuild the monuments “as they were supposed to be” rather than as they had been in the past. The result was usually an idealized neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance building that differed significantly from the original monument. In this respect, he was following the principles of his contemporary Viollet-le-Duc, the famous restorer and administrator of the French historical monuments. For example, when he restored the Munsterkerk in Roermond, his native town, he added two Roman style towers, and removed a Baroque tower, changing completely the exterior aspect of the church. Another “creative restoration” project was undertaken for Castle de Haar near Utrecht. The original 14th century castle was enlarged and transformed beyond recognition, taking the aspect of an idea Medieval fortress that had never existed before.

In the late 19th century his creations enjoyed a great popularity. Cuypers had many disciples, and was eventually named Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands as a recognition for his life work. However, times were changing fast, and by the time of his death in 1921, his work was already ignored by younger generations of architects. The Catholic revival that took place during his lifetime proved to be short lived, and church attendance dropped dramatically after 1945. Many of his churches were eventually desecrated and turned into exhibition halls, or even torn down. While many of his creations are still standing, they are usually ignored by historians or tourists in favor of older, more authentic monuments. The two significant exceptions are the Central Station in Amsterdam and the Rijskmuseum, two buildings which will make sure that his name will not be completely forgotten anytime soon.

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