‘We as architects are happier than the rest’

In certain occasions, the architect should remain as invisible as possible, claims Antonio Ortiz. Indeed, the Spanish architect’s design philosophy is clearly evident in his firm’s most recent work: the Rijksmuseum renovation.

Antonio Ortiz (Photo's: Sam Rentmeester)

For over four decades, you have had a spectacular career in architecture. Did you always want to become an architect?

“Actually, no. I am an architect a little bit by chance. I was supposed to be a Civil Engineer, but there was a new architectural school in Seville and I thought, ‘why not try?’ and I liked it. Since then, I am really happy to be an architect. I am enjoying my career.”

You were born and raised in Seville. Has the city influenced you in any way?

“Yes, probably more than I think. There’s a kind of secrecy in many spaces of the city that I like and I try to bring into what we build. But I am completely unable to say until what point the city has influenced me.”

In 1971, you founded Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos with your partner Antonio Cruz. What made you decide to start your own practice?

“Well, in those years, there were not so many architects in Spain. You studied architecture to be an independent practitioner. I mean, it was not even conceivable that you can work for bigger offices. You were supposed to be a liberal professional by yourself.”

You have worked with Antonio Cruz for your entire career. How would you describe your relationship?

“We have been together for so many years, from students to professionals, and we are very close friends. We like the same films and we read the same writers. The way we work together is very difficult for us to perceive. For us, it happens in a very natural way.”

Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos is known for its award-winning designs. What is the secret to your success?

“I don’t think we are so successful. We still keep an office in the south of Spain, which is not too big and we have another office here in Amsterdam. We always liked what we do and we are very tenacious. That is another quality that an architect should have. First, we started with small commissions and later we had bigger ones. What could be the origin of our success is that when commissions arrived, we were already trained to do something on a similar scale. We are also great competitors. We made and still make one competition after another, parallel to the normal activities of the office. Well, now I realize that everyone is forced to do it. It’s not a choice. But it was a choice, at a certain point, for us to do that.”

Since the early 90s, your firm has left its mark on the Dutch urban landscape. Was it always your intention to take on projects in the Netherlands?

“No. I mean, it was a kind of mutual falling in love, let’s say. I always like to tell people that the first time I gave a lecture abroad was in Rotterdam. We were very young and to be called out of the country for the first time was very important. This was in the 80s and since then, we have been called by friends or by people who knew us to do things here.”

In 2001, Cruz y Ortiz won first prize in the Competition for the New Rijksmuseum. How did it feel to have won?

“The competition was by invitation, so we were invited with six or seven other offices. When we won it, we obviously felt very happy. Well, to lose a competition is not important, but to win some of them is very exciting, especially the Rijksmuseum. That’s something that I always feel thankful for. In general, the way in which we have been treated in the Netherlands has always been very good. And to be trusted to build the National Museum is also something that I cannot be thankful for enough.”

Talk us through the renovation.

“The building was treated very badly during the 20th century. The courtyards had disappeared and the museum was an absolute labyrinth. So the first thing was to clean up what shouldn’t be there, to bring the building back to its original splendour. I think this is the right word for this building because it was created with this ambition to be splendorous.

Apart from that, we had to endow the building with spaces to receive an ever-growing number of visitors. That means we needed to provide the building with services and all those things that two and a half million visitors are going to need.

We tried to connect the two courtyards as much as possible, because, in technical terms, it was impossible to do in Cuyper’s time. The passage actually cut the two lower floors of the building in two parts. Only the main floor was continuous. Apart from that, we tried to bring the building up-to-date using contemporary architecture, but not abusing the juxtaposition or contrast.

There is a certain abuse in modern architecture of this kind of juxtaposition. From my point of view, it has become too explanatory. Visitors are permanently taught about what is new, what is old. I get tired of these things. I prefer that for those who want to pay attention to these matters, they can do it without being overwhelmed by the explanation of the architect. The architect is not on the stage. He is out of the stage.”

The renovation took thirteen years to complete. What were the main challenges?

“There were many problems. If you get into a process like this, you should know that it’s going to be controversial. Everybody’s going to have an opinion, from the Monumentenzorg (the National Heritage Board) to every neighbour in the area, to the bicycle associations.

“So there were a lot of things that had to happen and eventually happened. Apart from that, the technical difficulties were high in order to bring the building and the museum, up-to-date. It was also difficult to work on a building from the end of 19th century facing the permanent presence of the previous architect. Cuypers was everywhere. So the building is full of details that made it especially difficult to work on. There are almost no points to approach the building without finding something there that you should respect.”

Despite these challenges, what was the most fulfilling aspect of the project?

“The opening. The opening because, after getting through what has been a controversial process, finally, there is a kind of worldwide agreement that a very good thing has been made. We never got such an enthusiastic response with any other building, not just in architectural terms, so we are very thankful for that. The museum staff seems to be happy, from the security guards to the director and the same can be said from the first visitor to the last one. We, as architects, feel happier than the rest.”

This year, you and Antonio Cruz are visiting professors at the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft. Could you tell us more about what you intend to teach?

“The lectures are going to be about our work. I will try to select those buildings that are closer to the topics that the students are studying, probably those that are a little bit more integrated in historical settings. And the studio – Studio Amsterdam is its name – is going to be about studying the Plantage area in the centre of the city.”

You and your partner have taught at universities all over the world, including the Graduate Schools of Design at Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Zurich and Lausanne. Do you consider education to be an important part of your work?

“We are guest professors now and then. We like to do it from time to time. I mean, to be guest professors is a very good thing for both us and also for the universities: we try to do our best in a short period of time and we are very happy to teach here.”

What do you think about Dutch design?

“I can understand that, nowadays, for every architect it is very difficult to reach a certain visibility. But this can lead to a certain excess in Dutch architecture. Of course, there are wonderful buildings and beautiful works and a huge will for innovation, but this sometimes brings about certain anxiety and excess.

It’s probably a sign of the times. But anyway, Dutch architecture always had a leading role in the 20th century and it still does. Probably, what I modestly criticize as a certain kind of excess is certainly welcome all over the world. So maybe I am the one who is wrong.

To be fair, the problems that I can see in Dutch architecture have a lot to do with the way in which the role of the architect in the whole construction process has evolved in the last twenty years. Everyday, we are losing control of the technical aspects and remain just as responsible for the shape of the buildings.”

What advice would you give to architecture students?

“I know how the architect profession has evolved in the last decades and I cannot know how it is going to keep evolving, but I still think that being an architect is a great thing. For those who feel that architecture is their vocation, I really try to encourage them, because I think we architects are still generalists in a world of specialists. It is great to be able to have a broader vision. I’m really happy with my profession and I am proud to have made this choice.”


Spanish architect Antonio Ortiz (1948) studied architecture at the Escuela Superior de Arquitectura in Madrid. In 1971, he and his partner Antonio Cruz founded Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos in their hometown of Seville. Known for their recent work on the Rijksmuseum, the award-winning duo has designed some of the most extraordinary buildings in Europe over the last forty years, including the SBB Railway Station in Basel and the Olympic Stadium in Seville. They opened a second office in Amsterdam in 2002.


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