Musée d’arts de Nantes
Stanton Williams’ design for the Musée d’arts de Nantes is about stitching space for contemporary art into the solid, monumental historic building but it is also, perhaps more importantly, about stitching the institution back into the city. Like all historic museums, the Musée d’arts has expanded and incorporated the space around itself (even including an old church). The British architects’ skill shows itself in the way in which they have sewn together those seemingly disparate parts into a route that now feels like a coherent, elegant and enjoyable wander through the history of art and the bones of an old port city.
From excavating into the bedrock to create a lecture theatre and education spaces to engineering a delicately translucent, marble-skinned link between the old and new buildings and to the fine new galleries for modern and contemporary art, a stroll through the revivified museum feels not only like a journey through art but an exploration of architecture, geology, and the layers of urban history.
At the start and, perhaps, heart of the route is the arcaded courtyard, stripped back to its bare bones and reimagined as a space of dream-like whiteness and purity, a room with echoes of de Chirico which acts as a kind of city square, a constantly changing space for installation and orientation. The original Beaux Arts lobby, stairs and galleries have been cleaned up and re-lit to emphasise their grand civic scale and carefully crafted details. The new galleries are conceived as rooms that celebrate not only the art but also the city, with windows always making the visitor aware of their position in both the building and the urban grain. That marble-walled link glows inside and from without creates a luminescence which speaks of the fineness of material and, in its framing, of the blocky rustication on the base of the historic building. This seems to be a building about light, about capturing and filtering that cool, Atlantic quality, which is so distinctive and which is skilfully sucked into every space. Thoughtful, careful and urbane, this is a project which sits lightly on the city yet makes its presence profoundly felt.
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