In its project for the renovation and extension of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, KAAN Architecten, under the direction of Kees Kaan, Vincent Panhuysen, and Dikkie Scipio, has brought contemporary appeal to a 19th-century beauty.
Visible from all over the city, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA) was conceived as a museum of light – a place where visitors could take long walks through works of art and nature.
During the last century, major changes were made to the building, including its original circulation layout and its connection with the city.
The new project is entirely contained within the existing structure of the museum. Since it’s not visible from outside, it’s a testimony to the heritage and resilience of this historic building. In fact, the extension happily coexists with the 19th century structure, without detracting in any way from its monumental character.
“The 21st- and 19th-century museums couldn’t be more different or more intense,” says Dikkie Scipio, architect and co-founder of KAAN Architecten. “They embody a symbolic contrast in terms of size, light, and atmosphere, while being designed as flexible exhibition spaces.”
KMSKA is now divided into three areas: the public entrance area, central exhibition galleries, and office spaces at the back of the building.
A large staircase provides access to the galleries. Massive oak doors, recently restored, open onto the entrance hall, which comprises an interactive information area, a café, an auditorium, a library with a coffee counter, and a circular staircase at street level. There’s also a cloakroom and a second entrance for large groups.
The entrance space leads to the de Keyserzaal (named after artist Nicaise de Keyser), from where visitors can pick one of two different routes: the first, up the staircase, to the main floor of the 19th-century museum; and the second, continuing straight, to the new 21st-century museum.
In the old sections, visitors walk through a series of dark pink, green, and red exhibition galleries, the colors based on the museum’s original tones, bedecked with oak doors, towering columns, and plaster ceiling ornaments.
On the first floor, large windows create a visual connection between the sunlit interiors and the outdoor setting. On the second, the main galleries are lit by large glass ceilings. Visitors can relax here on a number of stylish sofas. The two most important exhibition halls, dedicated to Rubens and Van Dyck, are at the center of the building.
Continuing their tour, visitors come to the new and completely autonomous exhibition space, which occupies four original courtyards. These spaces are white and bright, with daylight flooding in through four light wells, measuring approximately 75 feet (23 m) from floor to ceiling. These glazed areas incorporate additional lighting to compensate for seasonal changes in daylight levels. High-gloss floors enhance the dazzling effect of these spaces. Unusual but subtle marble inlays recall the elegant materiality of the 19th century museum.
An impressive staircase connects the new galleries on the first and second floors, and the mezzanine gallery, where other artworks are displayed.
An interesting feature of the project is the 18 x 30 foot (5.5 x 9.0 m) wall on the first floor, which pivots when needed to allow the movement of large artworks and other objects between the service elevator and galleries.
Architect: KAAN Architecten
Location: Leopold de Waelplaats 2, Antwerp (Belgium)
Photography by © Stijn Bollaert, Karin Borghouts, Sebastian van Damme, Mediamixer