In the science fiction movie The Matrix people discover that behind the visible world lies a spectacular ‘data world’. A visit to the renovated Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) offers a similar experience. In the four patios of the art temple that the Flemish architects Jean-Jacques Winders and Frans Van Dijk built in 1890, a second museum has been created – invisible to passers-by – with bright white exhibition spaces in which daylight enters from above through glass-enclosed voids and on high-gloss floors. reflects. A decor that in The Matrix wouldn’t be out of place.
‘Dematerialized’ is how architect Dikkie Scipio of Kaan Architecten describes the new rooms. They are the antithesis of the classic exhibition rooms with their oak paneling and walls painted in Pompeian red and olive green, and are ideally suited for displaying the modern works of art from the collection. There was no space for this, as well as educational facilities, a museum shop and an art depot; paintings were stored in the historic Salon. There were also problems with the indoor climate and the building had silted up with partitions and suspended ceilings due to the many internal renovations.
That is why a design competition for a master plan was launched in 2003. Kaan Architecten won with the proposal not to make an extension, but an ‘infill’, whereby 40 percent extra exhibition space was added while the facade remained untouched. The office applied the same ‘invisible’ strategy in the transformation of the former ministry building B30 on the Bezuidenhoutseweg in The Hague and the (underground) renovation of Paleis ‘t Loo in Apeldoorn (completion 2023).
Scipio calls the KMSKA ‘a super strong building’, because of its prominent place within the 19th-century urban expansion, the monumental size of the spaces with gigantic altarpieces by Rubens and the neoclassical facades. ‘We have conceived the building as part of the museum collection and have largely returned it to how it once was. We wanted to add an architecture that is just as strong, but completely different.’
Between these two worlds, of old and modern masters, the architects have created an adventurous new route, while the original walking track along the facade, with views towards the city, has been restored.
In the central entrance hall with its beautifully restored ceiling paintings and mosaic floor, you as a visitor choose: either you take the natural stone staircase up towards the old halls, or you walk straight ahead into ‘The Matrix’. The access to the new building is simply ‘cut’ from the inner facade, whereby the different layers of material are made visible in the finish; Scipio makes the comparison with a piece of gingerbread.
Each transition to the next room offers another surprise. For example, there is a 40 meter long staircase, lit from above, the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which leads to the first floor. Those who find the climb too much, take the lift that offers a view of the 11-meter high exhibition space through peepholes in the lift shaft. The new rooms are ingeniously connected horizontally by ‘bulking up’ the walls at the top of the existing rooms with corridors. The architects have hidden the air-conditioning systems in a long double wall. The air inlet grilles in the new rooms are designed as square wall ornaments, while in the old rooms all the technology has been concealed behind the moldings and the (day) light ceiling.
‘It may seem like nothing happened here, but if you know where we came from…’, Scipio says with a laugh. It was quite a quest to trace the original colors of the walls under countless layers of wallpaper and to convince the museum to bring them back. ‘When we started the project in 2003, the fashion in the museum world was to make generic boxes with gray walls. I just wanted to add something unique, that people can come to love, and that challenges the use.’ For example, an artist was asked to make an installation for the sloping space under the long staircase.
The print room is painted midnight blue, for the white rooms the architects designed triangular skylights that bring in northern lights and give a distinct graphic image, which looks different depending on where you stand. ‘If you want people to come back, there has to be something to discover,’ says Scipio. She points to a staircase covered with marble, where the veins in the natural stone slabs merge into each other exactly around the corner. ‘A detail like this may not immediately catch your eye, but you will see it on a second or third visit.’