Antwerp & Rotterdam - Two World’s In Dialogue

In the heart of Belgium, a journey that moves from opulent exploitation to a modern renaissance of art and memory can be found.

AT A TIME when Belgium was a small patch of yellowish grey barely visible on maps of the world, the country spread its sphere of influence across Africa with colonial enterprise. The sudden acquisition of vast amounts of raw materials and the resulting commercial deals led to boundless enthusiasm and optimism among people who had been subject to foreign rule seemingly forever, and was itself divided and disunited. It was all set to become a great economic power. King Leopold II, under whose auspices this inexorable progress was made, set about spending some of the money that was available in abundance from the new colonies on buildings that would bring international renown to his aspiring state. For example, to this day the profits of colonialism rule the Brussels skyline and can be seen from every vantage point in the city, the singular architectural monstrosity that is the Palais de Justice on Gallows Hill. Larger than Saint Peter’s in Rome it boasts the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe, a labyrinthine pile of over 700,000 cubic metres containing corridors and stairs leading nowhere in particular, thanks to its architect Joseph Poelaert, who died midconstruction, perhaps as a result of seeing his ambitions come horribly to life.

The ‘wonderfully eclectic’ Antwerpen-Centraal railway station

At the other extreme was another building with a dome inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, but this one was worthy of any baroque palace with more than 20 different types of marble as well as Doric, Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian columns, and a source of national pride: the wonderfully eclectic Centraal Station in Antwerp. Designed by Louis Delacenserie, constructed between 1895 and 1905, and boasting a steel canopy over the platforms devised by Clément Van Bogaert, this is a building of such quality and style it is known as the spoorwegkathedraal, the railway cathedral. Grandiose for sure, but regularly voted the most beautiful railway station in the world, and a monument to transportation that has been protected since 1986 and thoroughly renovated, as part of large-scale reconstruction work over a decade at the start of the century leading to its receiving the Grand Prix Europa Nostra in 2011 – the European Prize for Cultural Heritage.

KAAN Architecten transformed Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Image Credit: Mediamixer

Antwerp boasts another neoclassical building that has been renovated and expanded, this one with vast pillars topped by carved women charioteers above its entrance facade, the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, another fruit of colonial money that was rebuilt after 1884 and reopened in 1890, built in the days of victory and ostentation, lying spread out, sumptuously at ease, splendid, provocative. Today around 70% of its collection is made up of modern and contemporary work with just 30% being old masters. But what a collection. Flanders had an outsize influence on the history of art, from the 15th and 16th centuries with Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and then Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, these artists and so many others later made Antwerp the focal point of the Flemish baroque. Now, with René Magritte, James Ensor and Luc Tuymans the highlights are wide-ranging and growing.

Sometimes more than 90% of a museum’s collection is hidden from public view. Image Credit: Karin Borghouts

Antwerp’s painters, sculptors and stainedglass artists, embroiderers, goldsmiths and silversmiths joined together to form the Guild of Saint Luke in 1382, holding “their meetings and festivities in a ‘Painter’s Chamber’”. By 1663 the association had founded an academy offering a comprehensive curriculum of humanities, sciences and fine arts, and in 1773 the guild’s collection of art was inherited by the academy. This was looted by the French in 1794, but it was Napoleon who, by imperial decree, founded the Antwerp Museum, and in 1815, following the battle of Waterloo a substantial proportion of the stolen work arrived back in the city. The 1817 catalogue lists 127 items – a small collection, but of the highest quality. The nucleus comprised works from the second half of the 16th century and the 17th century, with Rubens as the crowning glory. This was later supplemented by a number of generous bequests and legacies. From 1850 onwards the academy began an ‘Academic Corps’ with leading artists required to donate both a work of art and a portrait when they joined. The “academicians’ museum”, as it was called steadily, developed into a genuine collection of contemporary art. This grew with purchases at the Salon from 1873 by which time the upshot of all this growth was predictable. They had run out of space.

The “salon” was coloured dark green because it matched better with the artworks planned for those rooms. Image Credit: Stijn Bollaert

A competition to establish a Museum of Fine Arts was held in 1877 with the city eventually inviting two young architects, Jean-Jacques Winders and Frans Van Dijk, to combine their respective designs into a single plan. Four years after the building was completed, Antwerp hosted the second World Exhibition. It included a colonial section set up by the administrators of the Congo Free State with a range of objects, for the most part looted, displayed to encourage investors. The colony was on the brink of bankruptcy at the time and Leopold II and his staff seized on the exhibition to whitewash the project’s image and as propaganda. Having been built in part with blood money extracted from the Congo, a shameful chapter in the history of the museum square followed with a human zoo forming a separate exhibition. Some 144 Congolese, dehumanised and framed as “primitive”, were put on display to perform a range of activities for the visitors, in a strategy pursued to legitimise colonialism. Some 44 of them fell ill as a result of the sea journey or their stay in Antwerp, and seven of them died. Lest we forget, economic progress in 19th century Europe was inextricably tied to the continent’s pursuit of global power. The historian Richard J Evans’ sweeping history The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914 lays bare a century of freedom and oppression, progress and misrule, when the Belgian exploitation of the Congo was particularly brutal, just as ‘violence lay at the heart of the British Empire’. Ideas about racial superiority were central to the imperial project of European nations. The Congolese zoo is part of the KMSKA’s history and today the museum sincerely regrets its part in this painful and unedifying episode. It is currently working on a historical event planned for 2024, 130 years after the World Exhibition, with a view to commemorating the victims and enshrining their history in the future.

Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts was originally conceived as a “daylight museum”. Image Credit: Sebastian Van Damme

By 1925 the museum was yet again deemed too small and four internal courtyards were covered over to create additional gallery space. The building was bombed during the war after which it fell into disrepair. Large-scale renovations began in 1976 followed by the first blockbuster exhibition: a grandiose ‘Rubens Year’. The Flemish government architect Bob van Reeth issued an open call to draw up a master plan for the KMSKA in 2003 and the Rotterdam architectural practice KAAN was first commissioned in 2006. Finally, in 2011 the museum was ready to put the master plan into practice. Closed for 11 years, it reopened again in 2022 having spent €105m. From the outside, apart from the cleaning, it is difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Yet the Museum has reinvented itself. Seven centuries of fine art are on show in a completely new setting. However, where there once was one museum, visitors now find two. Two completely different art worlds, each with a distinct identity, one inside the other. Classical art in a classical building, modern and contemporary work in a slick white cube. Dikkie Scipio was responsible for this legerdemain.

The renovated Rubens Gallery in Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Image Credit: Karin Borghouts

Scipio is one of the original partners of KAAN, a firm founded in 2014 by her together with Kees Kaan and Vincent Panhuysen. They have now expanded with offices in São Paulo (2015) and Paris (2019). A few years ago, Scipio gave a lecture about the shifting position of architecture within the scope of all arts, woven through the story of Notre-Dame de Paris. She began with Victor Hugo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the author made a plea for restoration of the cathedral. This was in 1830. In the book, he demonstrated a thorough and detailed knowledge of architecture and had formed a passionate opinion about the damage done by the academies, professors and ‘certain individuals that have adopted the title of the architect’. (The Palais de Justice in Brussels would only have confirmed Hugo’s position.) KMSKA is something rather different.

Architects Dikkie Scipio, Kees Kaan and Vincent Panhuysen. Image Credit: Marie Cecile Thijs

Like something from a forgotten age, the 19th-century building had been conceived as a “daylight museum”. Not only that but a “temple to the arts” with nods to Greek and Roman architecture, its original interior had vaulted ceilings, oak mouldings and walls painted in lush, dark hues. However, the open courtyards, with their large skylights that were all too briefly made into galleries, over time became closed in and filled with administrative offices and studios manned by restorers conserving the artworks. During the 20th century, the building continued to undergo fundamental changes in layout, modifications to the original circulation routes and its connection with the city. KAAN aimed to reverse all the earlier changes by combining a thorough renovation of the historic museum with a contemporary extension completely concealed within the existing structure, turning the old courtyards into exhibition spaces and reinstating the skylights to let in natural light. Making a connection with the outside world by allowing daylight in is such a rare thing in a museum these days that this is a real delight.

Architects Dikkie Scipio, Kees Kaan and Vincent Panhuysen. Image Credit: Inga Powilleit

Scipio has also added two exhibition halls on the roof. By completely overhauling the building, she has restored the intrinsic qualities of the space, reinstating original colours, materials and routing within the historic halls. Visitors walk through an enfilade of exhibition rooms painted dark pink, green and red; oak doors, tall columns and ceiling ornaments in plasterwork convey a feeling of ancient grandeur. Meanwhile, hidden in the heart of the old building, a new vertical museum arises as a completely autonomous entity built within the four original patios. With bright white exhibition halls, hidden rooms, long staircases, farreaching sight lines and varying gradations of daylight, the new museum charts a route full of surprising vertical experiences. Wherever the new extension cuts the museum’s solid mass, subtle marble inlays have been added, echoing the elegant 19th-century museum’s materials. These contrasting entities coexist as two different worlds in one building, unveiling themselves little by little. The experience is never predictable, always in balance, challenging and at the service of the art.

Architects Dikkie Scipio, Kees Kaan and Vincent Panhuysen. Image Credit: Inga Powilleit

The Rubens Gallery, including some monumental church paintings, The Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Christ and Madonna Enthroned Surrounded by Saints, is largely unchanged. But the “old museum” has been polished and reorganised to emphasise its relevance to contemporary visitors. Where previously the display followed chronology, now it groups works according to themes, such as “Prayer”, “Suffering” and “Redemption”. In the “new museum” work is also organised by themes, such as “Light” and “Form”, and displayed against bright white walls, where daylight pours down through glass atriums. Within these spaces, a few paintings are often clustered together to clarify particular artistic concepts. Although the works are largely divided into “old” and “new”, the curators have occasionally had some fun by mixing the two in order to defy expectations. A Fra Angelico pops up in a cluster of abstract modern paintings. A Tuymans portrait features in the old masters’ “Suffering” section, near a Pietà. Two distinct worlds, but ones that communicate nevertheless and sometimes come into dialogue in a single universe in Antwerp.

Collections are connected via circulation staircases in order to better showcase artworks. Image Credit: Ossip Van Duivenbode

Also based in Rotterdam, MVRDV was founded in 1993 by Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries. Maas together with Fokke Moerel and his team have created something remarkable, and utterly democratic. Less than ten minutes by bike from their office is the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, a place where open access takes on a whole new meaning by breaking with the standard museum tradition of concealment – most only exhibiting 6–7% of their collections. Thus, on average, 94% is hidden away and the public never sees it. Located at Museumpark in the centre of Rotterdam, the depot is the world’s first fully accessible museum storage facility. The whole lot. Not only that, visitors can immerse themselves in the world behind the scenes and experience what maintaining and caring for an invaluable collection actually entails; they can see conservation and restoration processes, packaging and transportation of works of art. Everything that happens. Backstage has become front of stage. Some 151,000 artefacts are stored on the basis of climatic requirements, rather than by artistic movement or era in one of five different climate zones suited to works produced in different materials. A combination of geothermal heat exchange, solar panels, LED lighting and highperformance insulation makes the building neutral with regard to energy consumption.

The completed Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen. Image Credit: Ossip Van Duivenbode

Rainwater is collected to reduce the building’s water consumption. The building’s most striking feature is its mirror facade, comprised of 6,609 sq m of reflective glass subdivided into 1,664 panels. These were adopted by inhabitants and cultural institutions of Rotterdam for €1,000 each as a gesture of support for the depot. No less exciting, inside, surrounded by art, visitors are led upwards through an atrium via five large zig-zagging stairways reminiscent of the etchings of Piranesi.

The €94m 15,000 sq m building was the brainchild of Sjarel Ex, the museum director, an idea that came after a devastating flood in 2015, when after 13 hours of relentless rain, he had to choose between the library and the collection. Firefighters could not save both. By a miracle the art was saved, but Ex decided never to store priceless works underneath a museum again. Combined with exhibition halls, a rooftop garden and a restaurant, another innovation is that the new facility is also home to some private collections that are occasionally open to the public. In conjunction with the customs authorities a freeport exists inside the depot.

Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim by Jean Fouquet. Image Credit: Hugo Maertens

Ahead of the curve, the whole idea is way out in front of a new trend. The Centre Pompidou has announced an “art factory” to be established by 2025 in Massy, a 30-minute train journey from Paris at the same time as the V&A will open its archive in a new building by O’Donnell and Toumey in the Olympic Park in east London. Meanwhile, Moscow has unveiled a project to store the collections of 27 national and municipal museums in a new facility in the suburbs.

Things are very different elsewhere. In Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has gone full-on Bilbao. Thanks to Sanaa, Japan’s Pritzker-prize-winning architects, walls of glass show off the big blue skies and the harbour in a marriage of art, architecture and landscape that echoes Louvre Abu Dhabi, New York’s Whitney and Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. As to whether Sydney Modern will meet its objective of changing how this sporting nation sees itself is another matter. Condemned when it opened in December as an expensive set of boxes that took away valuable green space, the $230m addition to the 1909 neoclassical original has the feel of a corporate office or an airport lounge.

In the Rubens Gallery, children are shown an installation by Christophe Coppens. Image Credit: Sanne De Block

The conflict over the side entrance to the National Gallery, the remodelling of the Sainsbury Wing, is also on the lines of “an airport lounge” according to some, and not a recipe for permanence as most commentators have pointed out as befits a national treasure. And yet, and yet. In London the battle of Trafalgar Square has been raging again ever since Annabelle Selldorf unveiled her alterations to the postmodern mash-up that is the Sainsbury Wing. Complications and disputes led to its architects resigning. It had been a story of problems, interference and compromise. Classical, contemporary, contextual the Wing may be, but successful it is not. While Scott Brown thought it was fun for ‘Palladio and Modernism to fight it out on the main facade’ and the new picture galleries called ‘practically perfect’ by the current director, Gabriele Finaldi, the building has always been a compromise. And yet, ever since Selldorf’s proposals were first unveiled “nostalgia for a reinvented and reimagined past” criticism from a gaggle of forgotten former RIBA past presidents gathered pace. They went rogue, forgetting that the Venturi Scott Brown extension emerged from the ashes of a competition, and a winning scheme that had not been not universally well received was later interfered with and eventually rejected. Stephen Bayley was not exactly breaking new ground in 2011 when he wrote that the Sainsbury Wing was ‘a pitiably ill-proportioned and architecturally illiterate dollop of pious schmaltz’. It’s easy to criticise. However, Margaret Thatcher (who along with Prince Charles was seen by David Chipperfield as ‘one of the twin towers of negativity towards the architectural profession’) once said, ‘standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides’ – a metaphor apt for the manner in which the Sainsbury Wing was received upon completion. The totalitarian viewpoint of both the traditionalists and the neomodernists rejected Venturi Scott Brown’s design as compromised and untrue to tradition on the one hand, and as pastiche “picturesque mediocre slime” on the other. A fine building had nevertheless somehow emerged only to make clear how the vagaries of fashion inhabit architectural closets as much as they do any other. In 2024 we shall see how this turns out.

What KMSKA in Antwerp and the Depot Boijmans have shown is that you do not have to stand in the middle of the road to succeed. It is not either or, it can be both.

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