Gijs Assmann

When photographer Lard Buurman entered Dominecia Scarlattilaan in the vacuum of the Covid-19 lockdown to photograph Gijs Assmann’s recently completed work Pendulum, the premises of the European Medicines Agency, the EMA, looked deserted. However, he had hardly taken his first picture when suddenly, several guards appeared who made a big commotion about informing him that photographing the building was strictly forbidden. The fact that Lard Buurman wanted to take pictures of Gijs Assmann’s work rather than the building was irrelevant. Work of art or building, they were one and the same to the security detail on the spot.

Assmann’s work was made possible by the percentageregeling van het Rijksvastgoedbedrijf (Percentage scheme of the Dutch national Real estate company; Dutch only), which states that the Dutch government has to spend an amount equal to a specific percentage of a building’s construction costs on visual art. Construction costs of up to and including 7 million euros warrant an art budget of 1.5 per cent – a percentage that decreases as construction costs increase: 1 per cent for construction costs up to 10 million and 0.5 per cent for projects costing more than 10 million. The exact construction cost of the EMA building have not been published, but the value of the Design Build & Maintenance contract – which covers the development of the building and 20 years of maintenance – is a staggering 255 million. There was money to spend on the visual arts, indeed. Assmann’s work is not the only project: Leonard van Munster  designed an installation for the building’s roof garden.

The process behind the development of the EMA building was unusual. Even before the relocation of the EMA from London to Amsterdam had been agreed upon at the European level, the Rijksvastgoedbedrijf had already started tendering for the office building. They were in a hurry to construct a building in record time to ensure that the EMA could set in motion its relocation to Amsterdam before the fatal final Brexit deadline. The Rijksvastgoedbedrijf – the owner and lessor of the building – organized a tender in which the builder had a maximum of 20 months to complete the entire process, from the development of the design and going through the permit procedure to the completion of a turnkey building. As it turned out, the EMA building consortium – a joint venture between Dura Vermeer and Heijmans – was the only builder willing to take on this challenge.

This extremely ambitious planning also applied to the artistic commission to Gijs Assmann, who attended an initial meeting in January 2019, produced a final design in July 2019 and had every intention of completing the work by March 2020. The process of art commissioning involves a great deal of responsibility on the part of the artist, not only for the design, but also for the execution of the work, risk and budget control and planning.

Assmann had to create the work under high pressure, but this did not diminish the fact that the part the national real estate company as the commissioner and the EMA as the user played in the creation of the work was considerable. Assmann won the early-2019 competition with a process proposal rather than a detailed plan. ‘I actually formulated the commission together with them,’ Assmann told me. He proposed presenting five lines of thought, all of which he liked equally, and to make a choice through dialogue. The five lines of thought ultimately resulted in 18 sketched ideas. The definitive idea was chosen in an open discussion, with the EMA unanimous in its preference: an image of a balancing knot, a 54-m-long and 9-m-high meticulously knotted steel tube, balancing on the ground on an area of less than 30 cm2. It was made of a total of 9,000 kg of reflective stainless steel, a sophisticated alloy especially rich in different textures to ensure that the work always reflects its surroundings and the sunlight in different ways. 

The design of landscape architecture firm Okra described the position and role of the work of art as follows: ‘Indication of the identity of the user in the absence of a prominent name on the façade and/or in the exterior space in front of the building.’ The object was supposed to contribute to the wayfinding. The original work of art, included in the landscape design, was a fairly literal translation of the EMA logo: a 3D rendering of a pestle and mortar. Assmann gave the EMA’s identity a broader interpretation. Quite associatively, Pendulum refers to the structures of molecules, proteins and enzymes, but also shows the transparency and incorruptibility that are essential to the image of the powerful EMA. At the same time, its balancing act can also represent the precarious position of the institute, looking for balance in the dynamics of regulations, European policies and free markets.

The Ideal Commision(er)?
The relationship between user EMA and commissioner Rijksvastgoedbedrijf is unusual in the sense that the EMA determined the preconditions – including high demands regarding the safety in and around the building – as well as unanimously deciding on the definitive idea, while the Rijksvastgoedbedrijf operated much more as a partner, both practically and substantively. Assmann believes that a work of art becomes better when you enter into a dialogue about it with an open mind. ‘Do not underestimate your audience,’ he says, ‘people are quite capable of looking; you can trust them to make their own choices and often they choose more radically than you would expect.’ He does not believe that such intense involvement puts pressure on the artist’s autonomy. He remembers an anecdote that Gijs Frieling – a member of the art advisory committee and important sparring partner in this project – often uses: in the sixteenth century, when El Greco received the commission to create an important altarpiece for the Cathedral of Toledo, it came with a contract that covered more than 20 pages and described in detail what the famous Renaissance artist was to depict. This intense intervention by the commissioner resulted in a painting that, almost 500 years later, is still considered one of the highlights of art history. According to Assmann, if commissioners contribute to the sculpture, the work will effortlessly find its niche. And they will support you all the way.

– Claudia Linders