NANTES – A palace, a chapel and a cube have come together in a momentous project in the west of France. The historical site of the early-19th-century palace had been home to the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) since 1900 but was no longer large enough to contain the growing collection. London-based studio Stanton Williams transformed the existing site, as well as expanding the complex to include the neighbouring 17th-century chapel and two additional buildings: the Cube and an archive with a public library. New basement space has also been excavated underneath the palace to accommodate an auditorium and educational spaces.
‘The new extension has two key functions,’ the architect explains. ‘The first is to house the museum’s extensive collection of contemporary art which couldn’t fit into the existing palace. The second is that the Cube will provide a direct link from the original building to the chapel.’ In regards to the existing structure, the main work required was to bring the building up to contemporary standards and address concerns over accessibility.
The main interior spaces were reorganised to create new public areas and galleries while ensuring careful use of natural daylight. The firm collaborated with fellow London studio Cartlidge Levene to devise the graphic design strategy to provide a cohesive identity throughout the full scope of the project.
The stone-clad Cube comprises a four-storey art gallery, with exhibitions on each floor layers one of top of the other. As a physical platform between the palace and the chapel, it creates a link between the past and the present, connected by a staircase made of marble and translucent, laminated glass. The three elements that make up the new museum complex – now the Musée d’Arts de Nantes – seamlessly combine to create a coherent whole and ‘give the impression that the museum is one monolithic volume.’
Commenting on Article 12 of the Venice Charter, the architect says: ‘In our view, this approach can lead to contemporary interventions that have little engagement or dialogue with the existing. We are more interested in taking the approach that the new is completely intertwined with the old to form an integral part of a complete, enriched architecture.’
Work began on the renovation project in 2011 after the British firm had won a competition to complete the work two years previously. Despite delays caused by problems with the building’s foundations, the EUR 48.8 million project opened to the public last month and it’s not only the building’s structure that connects the old with the new: ‘it is quite unique in France to keep contemporary art in the same building complex alongside ancient art. Most cities end up building a new, separate museum for the modern collection,’ the architect concludes.
‘The museum strongly believed in the idea of a relationship between the contemporary art and the ancient exhibitions. This was a major drive for extending the existing building, which was too small to accommodate both collections.’
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