As KAAN Architecten rounds off its two-decade transformation of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Louis Mayes gives his verdict on the complex insertion of contemporary exhibition and back-of-house spaces with the neo-classical building.


KAAN Architecten has completed a near 20-year project for The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA). The proposal, initiated in 2003, has created a new series of exhibition and administrative spaces nestled within the existing neo-classical building, increasing space by 40 per cent, as well as consolidating the museum’s previously scattered storage depots. The existing neo-classical structure located in the south of the city was completed in 1890, predating the Tate Britain (1897) and Whitechapel Gallery (1901) and underlining the KMSKA’s progressive role in giving the public access to arts.

Today, the collection is expanding both spatially and chronologically, necessitating a space which allows for storage, but also a new situation in which to frame more contemporaneous works. “We’ll have a number of contemporary pieces to connect with our old and modern masters,” says the museum’s director Carmen Willems. The museum’s team has been heavily involved in this specific brief, leading to a project in which everyone has had a part.

Willems explains the overall concept of the new museum: “The building is set into three themes – a public entrance, the work itself, and the offices, which combine conservation and administrative areas.” The dominating portico remains open to enter through, and is seen as an extension of the newly landscaped public square. The importance of a civic gesture such as this is perhaps more percipient than normal, since the museum marks the one corner of the Duke of Alva’s dominating sixteenth century citadel from, from which he controlled Antwerp – a public building is symbolic of this shift from historic repression.

The courtyard has been infilled allowing for it to remain invisible from the exterior, maintaining the Haussmann-esque rigidity of the surrounding city, where views between public squares often frame the museum. This approach has allowed the original circulation of the museum to remain in place, an important aspect for a museum looking forward whilst also staying in touch with traditions.


“It’s not just the journey of the visitors that needed to be considered, it’s that of the masterpieces as well,” points our Dikkie Scipio, Director at KAAN Architecten. Refurbishing a museum with works as large as the permanent display of Rubens which are too fragile or large to be moved is a logistical issue in itself, yet the answer had already been included in the original museum. The museum has been phased around what is known as ‘the bunker’ – an arched storage depot under the museum which is connected to the main galleries by trap doors, allowing the work to be safely evacuated below in case of fire. These traps have since been incorporated into many of the original walls, allowing vertical and horizontal movement to areas of conservation and safety when needed.

“The museum is a series of routes,” says Scipio. “[It’s] two museums for the price of one.” Indeed, the concept of divides has been continued throughout the museum. Once you enter through the portico of the museum you find yourself in the original empress room, a generously mosaiced, gilded and voluminous original entrance of the museum. Here you have the split, where you can travel upwards to the original collection, or be drawn forwards down four stairs to the new extension.

“It is hard to compete with the original neo-classical building, so we pared it back and did something different,” says Scipio as we pass between two caryatids which mark the threshold between the old and the new museum. This is an understatement – the difference between the richly painted restored studios and the new intervention is about as similar as Bruegel to Braque. The proposal sets itself apart from the original both in its materiality and its approach to curation – an ironic repetition of the past where the original museum was actually built by two competing architects, Winders and Van Dijk.


The majority of the new intervention is almost entirely white, including the already slightly scuffed floor. When combined with the generously top-lit light wells which act playfully with the negative volumes created by cutting around and underneath the classical building, you are drawn through a maze of areas suited to a whole range of works and functions. The wayfinding here will need to be excellent, but perhaps there is a charm to getting lost whilst walking through the new areas of the museum and discovering new works.

What is apparent is that you can juxtapose the classical style with a modern architectural approach, but in some cases there has been difficulty in translating the monumentality of the classical to the infilled areas today. For instance, the so-called ‘stairway to heaven’ – a 103 step staircase that has been forced to negotiate a level change of classical propositions from the lower to upper floors whilst adhering to modern safety regulations – is more tribulation than transcendence.


Further, and more strikingly, a new entrance to the space has been created which allows level access to the museum. This is where you need to go to collect tickets or visit the cloakroom, shop or cafe, but is connected to the original upper floor entrance by a narrow circular stair which looks like it will struggle with the flow of visitors. The new doorway clearly cannot compete with the original portico, leaving a sense of subservience to the museum.

This moment summarises the project well, a brief which has been fulfilled, but which tries to account for its reticence in comparison to the classical through a series of hard-hitting architectural statements. “The collection of the new and old museum are two different worlds” states the museum staff, and this is true. The history and politics of the museum is founded on contradictions – two competing architects, Winders and de Rijk, built the museum together – yet the scheme was united by an understanding of a common classical language.

The KMSKA is looking to broaden its collections which has been made possible through these new interventions, and KAAN has attempted to tackle a highly complex brief which also challenges a fundamental typological programme in quite a radical way. There is a huge amount of unseen and intuitive thinking that has gone into making the museum as efficient as possible, yet it raises the question as to whether the brief has been over ambitious. The museum will be better off for KAAN’s intervention – it takes a good client for a well realised project, which this museum has – but the question is whether this approach of two museums in one will be emulated in the future.

Louis Mayes is the director of London-based Studio MAY and undergraduate design tutor at Oxford Brookes University.

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