KAAN Architecten unveils the main phase of its intervention on the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp: a dazzled journey through history and modernity guided by light.

Founded in 1810, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, also known as KMSKA (​Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen​), houses a rich art collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries.

This collection is representative of the artistic production and the taste of art enthusiasts in Antwerp, Belgium and the Northern and Southern Netherlands since the 15th century, from Flemish Primitives to expressionists.

Photography: Sebastian van Damme

The majestic building was originally designed by Jacob Winders and Frans van Dijk, opened in 1890 and completed in 1894. During the 20th century, new developments in exhibition design and museum distribution brought fundamental changes to the building’s layout, modifying the original circulation route and the connection with the city.

In the early 2000’s, the southern neighbourhood of Antwerp began to progressively gain greater value through public investments and urban transformation.

After winning an international competition in 2003 KAAN Architecten, one of the most renowned architecture firm in the Netherlands, has worked intensively on the complex masterplan, renovation and extension of the museum.

As said, Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp was conceived as a daylight museum, where visitors would enjoy a promenade surrounded by stunning artworks as well as the external landscape, witnessed through its multiple lookouts over the city and the inner patios.

One of the architects’ most intrepid initiatives was to completely conceal the extension of the museum within its existing inner structure — the new addition is not visible from the outside and co-exists with the powerful historical structure – in order to highlight the heritage value and the resilience of the outstanding 19th century building.

“Both the 21st and the 19th century museum couldn’t be more different and more intense. They embody an emblematic contrast in dimensions, light and atmosphere, while being designed as flexible spaces to welcome future exhibitions.” – says Prof. Dikkie Scipio, architect and co-founder of KAAN Architecten.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp is now divided into three realms (feel, see, work):

  • a public entrance area (feel);
  • central exhibition spaces (see);
  • offices (work) at the rear side of the building.

From the main entrance on Leopold de Wael square, a grand staircase grants access to the museum: large restored oak doors open onto the entrance hall, which features several museum facilities such as an interactive information zone, a café, an auditorium, a bookshop with a coffee corner and a circular staircase to the street floor level where a library, a cloakroom and a second entrance for large groups are located.

Photography: Stijn Bollaert

The entrance hall leads to the majestic de Keyserzaal (named after artist Nicaise de Keyser), which serves the pivotal role of introducing the visitors to two different routes and experiences: one, going up the grand staircase, leads to the main floor of the renovated 19t​ h​ century museum; the other, continuing straight ahead, leads visitors to the new 21s​ t​ century museum.

Photography: Sebastian van Damme

While visiting the historical museum, guests walk through an enfilade of exhibition rooms tinted in dark pink, green and red; oak doors, tall columns and ceiling ornaments in plasterwork collectively convey a feeling of ancient grandeur. ​The colour palette chosen during the renovation process directly relates to the museums’ original colours.

Photography: Stijn Bollaert

On the first floor, large windows visually connect the bright yet modest interiors with the surroundings, while on the second floor, the main halls are lit by wide glass canopies and equipped with elegant sofas for those enjoying the art masters.

The impressive Rubens and Van Dyck halls will host some of the highlights of the collection and are therefore positioned at the very core of the building. ​

The collection depot has been relocated inside the original location of the air-raid shelter bunker underneath the two main exhibition halls, at the street level. Extra-large paintings, taller than the high doors, can travel from the depot through one of the original 19th century hatches to the upper floors. From this position and following a specific route, a track of slender vertical hatches can deliver the paintings to the contiguous halls.

Continuing their visit through the museum, visitors approach the new 21st century exhibition space, a completely autonomous venue, built within the four original patios and wisely unfolding at the heart of the museum’s structure.

These spaces consist of bright white exhibition halls, where daylight beams in form 198 triple triangulated north-facing roof elements located on the top hall and flooding through four large light wells, measuring up to 23 metres floor-to-ceiling.

Photography: Stijn Bollaert

These skylights are designed to guide and diffuse the light, and their structure also features additional lighting to compensate for the seasonal loss of daylight. The three-dimensional urethane high-gloss floors of the new museum enhance the dazzling effect of these spaces.

Photography: Sebastian van Damme

​A sequence of strong vertical spatial experiences dematerialize the visitor’s experience and juxtapose it with the historical identity of the building.

Where the new extension ‘cuts’ the museum’s solid mass, subtle marble inlays have been added, echoing the elegant 19t​ h​ century museum’s materiality.

A long, impressive linear staircase connects the new exhibition halls on the first floor to those located on the top floor also granting access to an intermediate floor, which is dedicated to displaying delicate artworks such as etchings and drawings.

Photography: Stijn Bollaert

These dark cabinets are also visible through the four lightwells and are characterized by intense dark blue. The chosen colour scheme is related to the original colour palette but uses brighter variations.

Photography: Sebastian van Damme

Photography: Stijn Bollaert

In order to allocate the necessary space for the new museum premises and its advanced technical installation, careful decisions have been taken, such as shifting the position of the original wall between the Rubens and Van Dyck halls in order to bridge the blue cabinets and the new exhibition halls above.

Photography: Sebastian van Damme

KAAN Architecten has created an architectural concept for KMSKA that takes the form of an enchanting journey where visitors explore the two contrasting and dialoguing museums, which unveils themselves little by little.

The experience is never predictable yet always in balance: both routes are challenging and designed to serve the art.

The renovation of the museum takes time and KAAN Architecten is currently working on the office spaces integrating the KMSKA structure. Dikkie Scipio is additionally supervising the Masterplan at the museum.

The completion of the construction phases 1 and 2 is certainly an important milestone. However, there are other important goals to reach before the museum will be able to open its doors to the public: the renovation of the offices, operational testing of the climate system, scenography, the museum garden, moving in the artworks and the creation of a new art mosaic in the entrance.

As such, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp is not able to communicate an opening date at this time.

We invite you to visit the KMSKA museum’s official website​ for more information about the upcoming developments.