Revitalized Musée d’arts de Nantes Aims not for Spectacle but for Coherence

The newly reopened museum, one of France’s great art institutions, unites four centuries of architectural history.

Closed for six years, the Musée d’arts de Nantes has finally reopened, with upgrades and a new extension by the London firm Stanton Williams. Courtesy Hufton+Crow

“The first thing we did was take the gate away,” says architect Patrick Richard, standing on the Brittany-granite parvis at the entrance to the newly renovated Musée d’arts de Nantes. With this one move, he and his firm Stanton Williams, which was behind the lengthy renovation, dispelled the institution’s long-standing elitist associations. In place of the gate, they erected deep steps for pedestrians to hang out on and survey passersby on the parquet-patterned Rue Georges Clemenceau. “For us the public space doesn’t stop at the door,” says Richard, “it goes right into the inside.”

It was a bold initial step in a very complex project, the first major international work for the London-based firm. Upgrading the giant complex was a $55 million endeavor comprising everything from street-level urban landscaping and surgical interior adaptations to the construction of a necessarily discreet, white-box extension.

Set on an awkward footprint amid a dense residential neighborhood in the city center, the 1900 museum building is a typical beaux arts palais on a plinth. The interventions such as the one Richard highlights add a good deal of intricacy and excitement to the architectural sequence of spaces. Moving through the revitalized palais and into a 21,500-square-foot extension called the Cube, the trajectory continues on to the neighboring 17th-century chapel-turned-gallery. The winding promenade culminates in the sculpture garden.

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“It was clear that it was no use competing with the palais, and the decision was made very early on for the front door to remain with the palais,” Richard explains. Upon entering, visitors are immediately drawn to the “patio,” a covered courtyard and spatial centerpiece of the institution. Gutted during renovation (“We had diggers inside the museum,” Richard says), it is a clean, milky-white atrium, bordered by two stories of arched openings under a refurbished skylight that casts a ghostly hue. The hall will be used for large-scale temporary exhibits, the first of which is an aerial intervention by Austrian artist Susanna Fritscher whose silicone threads capture and refract the room’s ethereal light.

The galleries, populated with highly regarded works from masters (Delacroix) and contemporary artists (Duane Hanson), retain much of their original architectural character, although subtle modifications have modernized the spaces and made them more comfortable for the expected hordes of visitors. Acoustic screens on the arched windows and chamfered blocks in the center of the rooms break them up and bring a human scale to the echoing grandeur of the palais.

A bridge connects the neoclassical bastion to the Cube, crossing from the 20th century into the 21st. (The museum has an enduring reputation for acquiring the work of living artists, which will be displayed in the extension.) Like its moniker, the Cube is understated but generous; unlike the palais, which is blind to the street, it relies on double-height windows to establish a visual connection between the complex and the cityscape. Much attention was clearly lavished on the marble-and-laminated-glass facade that abuts the main stairwell. When museumgoers enliven this circulation space, the effect is theatrical. By day, the translucent, six-millimeter-thick marmoreal screen atmospherically lights the stairwell; by night it creates mottled silhouettes legible to those outside.

Knitting all these individual components together—a baroque chapel, a Beaux Arts palais, and a minimalist cube, set against a backdrop of ’60s housing blocks—is no mean feat. Yet through attention to material and structural detail, Richard says, “they absolutely all work together, in a strange way [that is] not what you’d expect them to do. They’re all good neighbors.”

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