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Nantes, France

Grand Musée d’Art

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

Situated on the River Loire, fifty kilometres from France’s Atlantic Coast, the city of Nantes has a rich heritage. In the medieval period it was the capital of the Duchy of Brittany. By the eighteenth century it had become a wealthy port; in the nineteenth century it was an important manufacturing centre. In the present day, it is the sixth largest city in France, a popular place to live with a notable cultural scene. In autumn 2009, Stanton Williams won an international competition to transform the city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, one of the leading regional galleries in France with a significant collection of nineteenth-century and contemporary art. The museum will be comprehensively renovated, while a new 5800sq.m. extension on an adjacent site will provide space for the display of twenty-first century art, a sculpture court, and other facilities. It will be known upon completion as the Grand Musée d’Art.

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

The museum is located in the centre of Nantes in a building known as the Palais des Beaux Arts, an imposing structure dating from 1900. It occupies half an urban block, with streets to the north, east and south. To the west is a disparate collection of buildings, including the Chapelle de l’Oratoire (a chapel used for temporary art installations). This western area is to be the location for the new galleries, and for ‘Building 14’, which will house the museum’s offices and documentation centre.

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

The ensemble is set amongst cultural institutions and residential buildings of high architectural quality. Yet its immediate environs seem to lack a certain energy: the city block which includes the museum makes little contribution to the surrounding streets. Indeed, the existing gallery was described by Julian Gracq in his La forme d’une ville as a ‘strange, blind monument’. The project therefore aims to transform the image of the museum, from a closed and introverted institution to one which engages fully with its context – a ‘museum in the street’ whose presence in the cityscape will be more strongly asserted.

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

The renovated and extended museum has been conceived as an architectural and cultural promenade that will offer visitors an unfolding sequence of spaces (both internal and external) and exhibits. The sequence begins with a new public space to the west of the block, replacing car parking in front of the Chapelle de l’Oratoire and offering the potential for the permanent or temporary display of sculpture. The character and materials palette of this space will be extended into the streets which link it to the museum (and the Jardin des Plantes beyond) through the use of new paving and the introduction of pedestrian priority. At the main entrance to the museum, a new, wide flight of steps and platforms will offer places for passers-by and visitors to sit, with the potential for sculpture to be installed on the upper levels in order to connect art and the street.

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

The museum’s magnificent entrance hall will remain the principal means of access, providing a single controlled point of entrance and exit. New ramps and ticket/information counters here will be made of stone, reflecting the way in which the hall is dominated by the use of this material and the contribution that it makes to the space’s character. A café will be located in the eastern pavilion, while the ground floor galleries will serve as spaces for pre-nineteenth century art and temporary exhibitions. These galleries will be refurbished with new lighting and ventilation to meet the relevant international standards.

Stanton Williams — Grand Musée d’Art

Access to the first floor of the museum will be principally by means of the existing grand stair leading from the entrance hall, though a new flight of steps in metal and glass is to be inserted within the south-west pavilion, along with a new lift. The first floor is organised with top lit galleries arranged around a vast central hall, the ‘patio’, which is used for temporary exhibitions and whose lighting and temperature systems will be overhauled. The galleries to the east of this space will house the museum’s renowned collection of nineteenth-century art; those to the west will accommodate twentieth-century works. Visual and physical connections will be created by means of new openings, allowing views from the ‘patio’ through the surrounding spaces towards the link gallery that will connect the existing building with the new extension for twenty first century art to its west.

The new building is to be connected to the existing museum at basement and first-floor levels, with the first floor linking gallery flying above a narrow street between the Palais and the extension, the cours Dupré. The new building has been designed to structure a dialogue between the Palais des Beaux Arts and the architecture of its setting. Through its form and materials, it aims to connect past and present. The building presents a monolithic appearance, comprising a single sculpted volume. Its internal elevation, facing the new sculpture court and garden at the centre of the block, comprises translucent marble and laminated glass, filtering the south light by day and glowing by night. The north elevation, facing the Rue Gambetta, will be more sober, responding to the adjacent blind façade of the Palais des Beaux Arts. Marble is to be used for the plinth at the base of the building and to articulate openings, echoing the use of granite for the plinth of the original museum and offering a contrast in its polished surface with the upper part of the extension. Here marmorino plaster, also known as stucco, will be used to reinforce the monolithic nature of the building. Its surface texture recalls the appearance of buildings made from the local stone, tuffeau, which weather to a hard, smooth finish in which joints between individual blocks are barely visible. The impression will be a building carved from a single piece of stone.

The external palette of materials will be continued within the building, reflecting the continuity of external and internal space which characterises many buildings in the Loire Valley. A stair runs the full height of the extension behind the south elevation, connecting the large flexible galleries that occupy each level. Deep blind niches are found at the edges of the galleries, seemingly cut into its walls. They offer space for video installations. An important consideration in the design of the galleries was their relationship with the urban context. Large openings in the walls therefore not only provide natural light whilst but also afford glimpses of the internal spaces to passers-by and provide views of the surrounding area for those within.

The Chapelle de l’Oratoire can be reached by stair or lift from the lowest level of the new building, or from the sculpture court that occupies the space immediately to its east at the heart of the city block. The sculpture court itself continues the architectural and cultural promenade. It will comprise a series of steps and platforms able to accommodate permanent or temporary works, with a large glazed area giving light to the basement workshops below. Glimpses of the court from the street will be provided through openings in the ground floor of Building 14, which will terminate the court at its southern end. Through its massing, this building negotiates the significant shift in height between its neighbours. A roof terrace, meanwhile, will offer panoramic views of the city.

When complete in 2013, the new and refurbished buildings will shape a new identity for the museum, clearly expressing its different functions. The treatment of their elevations, in terms of scale, massing, and the provision of openings, will relate the museum better to its context, offering a welcoming setting for the Grand Musée d’Art to develop its already strong reputation yet further.

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