Plus ça change

Stanton Williams’ respectful refurbishment and extension of Nantes’ historic Musée des Beaux Arts is all about what is already there. While adding to the original buildings, it puts them and the artworks that fill them centre stage

View towards the main museum entrance showing the new graphic art workshop building.
View towards the main museum entrance showing the new graphic art workshop building.

Tasked with the refurbishment and extension of Nantes’s historic Musée des Beaux-Arts, one of the largest museums in France outside Paris, many architects would be tempted to go for the iconic gesture. Not so Stanton Williams, recent recipient  of the Stirling Prize and a practice renowned for its sensitive yet contemporary interventions.

Instead, as project director Patrick Richard says, the practice is making what is already there work better rather than ripping it out and starting again. Not that it is in any way afraid of overtly contemporary interventions. There will be two new buildings on the site as part of the €50m scheme, one with a translucent marble double-glazed exterior, but they will quite deliberately play second fiddle to the main palais. 

‘We wanted the main building to remain main,’ says Richard, describing the extension as being a ‘trait d’union’ that links parts of the site.
The intention, he adds, is to create ‘an architectural and cultural promenade’, avoiding pastiche and instead offering an unfolding sequence of internal and external spaces both old and new. 

‘We’re anti the idea of iconic buildings – we’re interested in designing from the inside out. We’re much more interested in the spaces in between – between the objects or the buildings,’ says Richard, adding that the building exterior itself should be subservient.

Stanton Williams won the project – its first in France –through a competition in 2009. The key motivation was to create more space for the museum to show its collections, especially its 20th century art, of which just a tiny fraction is currently on show. And while museum director and project leader Blandine Chavanne stresses that it is  ‘the collection, not the building’ that is the priority, the publicly-funded project is an opportunity for the museum to show its collections off better by improving its building.

A new building for 21st century art will be linked to the main museum by a first floor bridge over a narrow side street.
A new building for 21st century art will be linked to the main museum by a first floor bridge over a narrow side street.

Stanton Williams’ considered, unshowy approach has chimed well with the client’s priorities – both client and architect agreed that the museum needed ‘fixing’ rather than reinventing.

‘It’s very nice to work with Stanton Williams, says Chavanne. ‘Not every architect has the time to work out what we want and how we want to work, but they have spent very, very much time in Nantes. It is very important.’

The architect’s first task was understanding the plum but complex site. Positioned opposite the Cathedral on the city’s main cultural axis, the existing buildings consist of the main Palais des Beaux Arts, an imposing neo-classical 1900 edifice designed by Clément-Marie Josso, plus to the west the 17th century Chapelle de L’Oratoire, used by the museum for art installations.  The brief had scope for new development to the west of the main museum as well as creating new space in its basement. The challenge was to give a coherence to these various new and upgraded elements.

There were other considerations beyond the need for more space. The original museum was deliberately imposing in character without the permeability in terms of windows and access required by 21st century cultural venues. Inside, the museum sought a display strategy that would allow it to accommodate small as well as large objects in the double-height galleries. It also needed to improve environmental conditions and tackle its glazed roof, which made light and heat control challenging.

 

Model. The two new buildings will help enclose a new sculpture garden to the rear of the Chapelle.
Model. The two new buildings will help enclose a new sculpture garden to the rear of the Chapelle.

Stanton Williams’ approach, says Richard, was ‘more modification and continuity than transformation’. As a result, the core historic collections are to be retained in the renovated original building with the museum extended to the west via a 5,800m2 new wing created for contemporary art, which visitors will seamlessly visit on their route through the museum. A second new building to the west will house graphic art workshops. This terminates a new sculpture court which will ‘plug’ the museum into the Chapelle. All the interventions will help reinforce the museum’s more inclusive attitude than the original, more elitist nature of such institutions of the time. The result will be an additional 2,100m2 of exhibition space on top of the existing 6,200m2.

The promenade begins with the entrance, which despite the building’s grandeur had a relatively narrow flight of steps and was not fully accessible. To create a less introverted, more democratic and welcoming first impression, Stanton Williams is reworking this by simply widening the steps to form a granite ‘carpet’ the width of the elevation and in doing so creating a place to linger and socialise, with a lift at one side to increase accessibility.  There is the potential to install a sculpture at the top of the steps to connect art with the street. 

Inside, Stanton Williams is retaining the grand entrance hall as the main access point but is improving visitor provision by adding ramps and new counters in the stone that characterises the space, plus a new café and bookshop in the eastern pavilion.

Site Plan.
Site Plan.

‘It’s very subtle. We felt the quality of the space had to be kept… there wasn’t anything to repair – no scars. We’re just replacing what has to be replaced and keeping the spirit of the place’

‘It’s very subtle. We felt the quality of the space had to be kept… there wasn’t anything to repair – no scars. We’re just replacing what has to be replaced and keeping the spirit of the place,’ says Richard.

Galleries are top lit and arranged around a central hall or ‘patio’, which is used for temporary installations, with 19th century collections to the west and 20th century displays to the east. Stanton Williams decided to make these work better by changing the fabric and the display system, introducing a ‘double skin’ similar to that used in its refurbishment of Compton Verney along the gallery walls overlooking the patio. Devised with environmental engineer Max Fordham, this conceals extra insulation and a vapour barrier and ducting, interventions necessary to meet HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale) requirements.

Ground Floor Plan.
Ground Floor Plan.

Drawing on the firm’s extensive experience in exhibition design, Stanton Williams devised a new display system to allow smaller exhibits and furniture to be shown as well as paintings, through the use of large display furniture within the gallery to supplement the perimeter wall displays. As a result, more of the museum’s collection can be exhibited in the same space, and there will be more scope to present the collections in different ways.


New openings will give views across the patio between galleries and into the new extension, drawing visitors through the space. Shutters can close these off if desired.

Top-lit galleries will be refurbished with new internal louvres to control the light and a double-glazed ceiling for thermal control.
Top-lit galleries will be refurbished with new internal louvres to control the light and a double-glazed ceiling for thermal control.

The biggest effort in the refurbishment has been the glazed, pitched steel-framed roof.  The architects were keen to keep the original concept of top-lit galleries but needed to solve the problematic heat loss and light control issues, which had led to many of the ceiling lay-lights being painted white. The strategy was developed with Max Fordham, which modelled and analysed the effect of changing daylight in each gallery before devising a way of increasing light levels in combination with a new thermal and acoustic envelope at ceiling level.

This will be achieved with a transparent, perforated glass fibre membrane for acoustic absorption, stretched below a new double-glazed ceiling with perimeter extractor grilles. This will give thermal control, while solar-controlled, mechanical louvres within the roofspace will control light.

‘The result is more environmentally efficient but done in the spirit of the museum,’ says Richard. ‘We’re using 21st century technology to make 19th century technology work.’

Another focus has been the basement. More back of house space was needed but Stanton Williams did not want to use up precious display space. Its solution will be to dig down 2.5m by underpinning to create a deeper basement level of 5m which can be utilised to house education rooms, storage and other back of house facilities. This will link through to the basement level of the new extension.

One of the new galleries in the ‘Cube’ extension, which will house 21st century art.
One of the new galleries in the ‘Cube’ extension, which will house 21st century art.

The new interventions are overt, with the underpinning expressed and oak panelling introduced only in areas where people will be sitting and touching the fabric.

‘We felt a basement had to look like a basement,’ says Richard.  The exception is a new concert room – which is essentially a timber box ‘like a musical instrument’, says Richard.

The promenade continues at first floor level via a linking gallery above a narrow side street from the renovated palais to the 5,800m2 extension. Known as the Cube, this is conceived by the architect as a translucent white monolith with space sculpted out to form the galleries. 

‘Through its form and materials, it aims to connect past and present,’ says Richard. ‘It’s not competing with the palais. It would have been wrong to create a look-at-me iconic building, but there is the sense of discovery – people will cross the little passage and discover a whole new environment.’ 

Education room within the museum basement, which will be excavated to create higher floor-to-ceiling heights. The rugged character of the original basement walls will be preserved.
Education room within the museum basement, which will be excavated to create higher floor-to-ceiling heights. The rugged character of the original basement walls will be preserved.

The choice of material was crucial. Although the architect liked the whiteness of the local Tuffeau stone, this was ruled out because it weathered badly. On the south facade, the solution was Estremoz limestone from Portugal, laminated to Saint Gobain double-glazing. This, says Richard, keeps the idea of a monolith but its translucency means it starts to dissolve to reveal hints of the staircase behind it.   

Elsewhere, Marmorino plaster or stucco will be used on the north and east elevations in conjunction with white marble. This palette is continued in both interconnecting external spaces and inside the building, reflecting the continuity of interior and exterior spaces typical of many buildings in the Loire Valley area. 

Openings in the gallery on the north and south elevations will give views in and out as well as admitting natural light. Galleries will be large and flexible to suit contemporary art but will have a similar feel to the original, says Chavanne.

View across the museum ‘patio’.
View across the museum ‘patio’.

‘It’s a new building, but it must be the same museum – its light must not be too different,’ she says.
 
From this newest building in the complex, visitors will pass to the oldest – the Chapelle de L’Oratoire, reached either through the basement level of the new building or via the new sculpture court, which replaces car-parking. This is conceived as a series of steps and platforms for artworks with a glazed area providing light to basement workshops. The court is terminated at the southern end by the other new building – known as Building 14 – which will house graphic art workshops. 

Stanton Williams proposes no significant interventions into the installation space of the Chapelle itself: ‘We aren’t transforming it – the artists will’.

The Cube will be built by 2016 with the whole museum refurbishment project due to finish by 2018. On completion, it will be known as the Grand Musée D’Art – a grand prôjet certainly but one without a grand gesture, and perhaps all the better for it.