The Age of Enlightenment

A formerly aloof monument to ancient art has been opened up in the French city of Nantes, with a precise handling of light and form as the keys to a unifying extension and refurbishment by Stanton Williams. James Parker reports

The Musée d’arts de Nantes ranks as one of France’s major fine art repositories, and one of the six largest in the country outside Paris. It has a large collection of works spanning the 13th century to the present, including substantial installations the museum commissions from current artists. Already mixing modern works with old masters, the museum wanted to enhance its focus on the present while celebrating the past in its recent major refurbishment and extension, which opened to the public in 2017.

This much-respected institution faced a dual problem, in that it presented a somewhat unwelcoming face to its city, and its internal environment was not up to 21st century exhibition standards. So a design competition was held in 2009 to find an architectural firm to design a refurbishment and extension that would bring a sense of coherence to the group of buildings on the site, as well as a greater openness to its surroundings. They would also need to bring the museums’ environments up to scratch; a key part of the brief was to upgrade the existing building to a standard that would enable the museum to borrow prized collections from leading international galleries.

The winning firm was UK practice Stanton Williams, which has considerable pedigree in cultural projects nationwide, including several projects at the V&A, plus recent commissions for the Royal Opera House, and the new Museum of London in Smithfield. However it had never before worked in France, and winning the Nantes project against a shortlist which included well-regarded French architects was something of a coup.

The project was also unusual in that Stanton Williams would not be working with a local architect, but would oversee every aspect of the scheme, except for the final installation of artworks. As Stanton Williams associate and project architect Anne Fehrenbach explained to ADF, this enabled them to demonstrate the meticulous approach which characterises the practice’s work: “We wanted to do it ourselves because we pay a lot of attention to the details – we wanted it to be really thorough”.

This meant that in close collaboration with the museum, Stanton Williams would have a guiding hand in everything from designing mountings for paintings and sculpture, to the signage that was built into the structure itself, designed in collaboration with Cartlidge Levene. Fehrenbach says that the competition “was very different to the way it’s done in the UK,” explaining: “We had a very detailed brief for the competition, so our entry was very detailed.” Following close engagement with the client to entirely understand their requirements, the architects “slightly tweaked” the designs.

Openness & coherence

The main building of the group of structures on the site in the centre of Nantes is the ‘Palais de Beaux-Arts.’ Purpose-built in 1900 to house the museum’s collections, it is a grand neo-classical stone and alabaster edifice, square in form with toplit galleries around a covered courtyard. Despite the benefits of this substantial two- storey structure, Fehrenbach says that the building, stuck behind iron gates, was “very closed on itself,” as well as inaccessible for wheelchair users. She says that in light of this, “the idea was to open the museum to the outside,” including installing lifts, but also a more fundamental reorganisation of the front elevation.

Included in the other extant buildings on the urban block, there is a 17th century chapel which holds temporary exhibitions, a couple of private residential buildings from the 19th century, and a small garden separating the Palais from the chapel.

The comprehensive project included a full refurbishment of the main Palais, a new extension for contemporary art with a linking walkway, and a sculpture garden.
In addition there’s a new back of house building housing a graphic art archive and a library, created as infill between two residential dwellings along the south flank of the site, where the entrance to the Palais is also found.

Palais renovation

The two-floor Palais contains the main historic collections – the ancient art collection is on the ground floor, and the toplit ‘monumental’ stone stair which greets visitors once through the main entrance takes them to the 19th century and modern art collections. Resolving the building’s daylighting issues in order to both create the ideal viewing experience and one which was precisely controlled was a central focus of the designers, and this started with the central courtyard, also known as the ‘patio’.

Its glazed pyramidal rooflight had suffered similar deterioration to the other roofs on the building, and as Fehrenbach explains, while the steelwork was retained, “virtually everything else was replaced as the structure was leaking”. This was also the case in the Palais’ toplit first floor galleries, the glass also having been painted in the past to avoid direct light damaging paintings, which meant the spaces were too dark by modern standards and required supplementary artificial lighting. As well as replacing the glass in the roof and skylights, the architects added adjustable blinds, plus a translucent heat-stretched material to diffuse the light to the 200 lux accepted level required for exhibitions.

The milky-coloured Newmat product used was the ideal balance between transparency and opaqueness, says Fehrenbach, as “you can see through it a tiny bit, not too far, but you get a sense of depth”. The light changes subtly as clouds pass over the sun, but is moderated by the blinds and the stretched material, creating a soft glow to the spaces below, further assisted by the white walls.

The controlled natural light is working so well that the sensor-controlled LED ceiling spotlights installed are not used during the day, says Fehrenbach. Linked to the building’s BMS, they gradually increase in intensity as the light deteriorates, so spaces remain functional all day.

As part of the refurbishment of the Palais, the architects opened up several of the windows which had been previously closed up to display more paintings, with special glazing to moderate light levels. They also sanded down existing timber floors and refurbished walls to a pristine white, as well as painting some walls a particular colour.

Working together with engineers Max Fordham, fresh air extract ducting plus humidity and temperature control were installed, however this together
with the necessary ceiling CCTV, alarms and speakers created a challenge in maintaining a monolithic, clean look. Anne laughs: “There are a massive amount of technical services; we spent a lot of time hiding everything, and working on duct co-ordination!”

A glowing cube

The key new addition to the museum is a four-level contemporary gallery called the CUBE, connected to the Palais via a link bridge, and “sitting very much on its own, although part of a route,” says Fehrenbach. Visitors can now get to the chapel (refurbished by a different architect, and containing its own artworks) from the Palais via the CUBE, from where they take a lift from a new glass pavilion up to the chapel’s entrance.

One way of helping to unite the campus – a guiding principle for the designers – was creating a couple of windows in the CUBE which offer views of the chapel without breaking the route around the galleries. In addition the route to the CUBE was not to be a transparent glazed link, but one which would continue the appearance of the Palais’ solidity, albeit in a different material. The link would also contain exhibits, to “continue the chronological route” of the collections from classical to modern.

The CUBE is a simple form, its materiality echoing the stone of the Palais. The architects, says Fehrenbach, “were inspired by the Palais. We wanted the CUBE to be seen as very sober and monolithic. It plays with a similar palette of materials, which helps to unify the buildings.” Including a large window at ground floor, it works as an intriguing ‘shop window,’ showing off exhibits to passing pedestrians on the north side of the site – enticing them to walk around to the south flank to enter.

The connecting staircase which runs along the CUBE’s south elevation not only “mimics the monumental stair,” but is also housed in the project’s most dynamic architectural feature. The whole south elevation of the CUBE is clad in a lamination of thin 7 mm Portuguese

marble (from Estremoz) with glass on either side, a void and a further glass panel to provide thermal insulation.

“From the outside it looks like normal marble,” says Anne, however once inside the light illuminating the material brings the cladding to life: “It’s really colourful, with its orange and grey coming out, and random patterns – it’s beautiful.” When the LEDs are on at night, the CUBE has a gentle glow. With this material being highly innovative used in a suspended facade in this way, it had to go through six months of testing.

The marble used for the CUBE is only fully translucent on the southern elevation – it is more opaque on the others, and the connecting link bridge. It has also been used to clad the infill building housing the archive and library on the south perimeter of the site. The resulting abstract and minimalist form enhances the stone residential buildings it sits between by virtue of its facade’s sheer plainness, and provides a hint of what the CUBE offers within.

A similarly meticulous approach to testing was also evident in lighting the contemporary galleries, where several LED spotlights were tested by the designers with a real painting to “make sure the colour rendering could get as close as possible to natural light.” Ceiling lighting boxes feature in the contemporary galleries with a similar diffused design to the Palais, although in this case using artificial lighting.

Basement, display & parvis

The loop created from the Palais through the CUBE to the chapel continues down to a new basement which connects all of the buildings, and where visitors are surprised to find a full set of ancillary spaces. Anne explains that due to planning restrictions, they had to “go down” to deliver what the brief required: “The client wanted new auditorium, learning workshops, storage facilities, so we had to excavate fairly drastically, between three and six metres below the foundation slab.”

A “completely different palette of materials” was used here, celebrating the physical nature of the below ground structures, using exposed concrete for all openings and timber door furniture designed by the architects. “We wanted to expose the bones of the building, so you see how it’s formed. The existing stone walls start by being quite regular, then quite rough, and then you see when the underpinning starts. You see the concrete foundation.”

She adds: “Everyone is amazed by the space – that it exists, because they don’t expect it. All of these spaces were back of house before and we’ve completely transformed them; it’s completely different to everywhere else in the building”.

Stanton Williams’ all-encompassing coverage of this project extended as far as creating “very sculptural” MDF and timber display furniture for artworks in both the CUBE and the Palais. These colourful forms provided a way to display smaller artworks, as per the client’s wishes to increase its offering – would be lost on the 10 metre walls – and they also serve to break up the galleries’ length.

Lastly, the architects’ chief intervention to the front of the museum was to open up the parvis and provide a new paved public space, replacing the railings. Fehrenbach comments: “The museum was rather introverted before, and the grand staircase could be read as imposing and/or intimidating.”

The design seeks to make the museum more inviting and democratic. As well as having a glass enclosure for sculpture on the front steps which performs a similar function to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, the building holds a lot of special events including night-time and childrens’ events. These are helping it to embed the museum into its community to a much greater extent.


The project is exemplary in showing the benefits of enabling an expert architect to deploy an exacting focus on environmen- tal quality, via being centrally involved throughout. The belt-and-braces nature of the commission is notable partly due to its rarity. Fehrenbach gives a telling example of the practical difference that the result – an extremely elegant project – delivers for the client: “It was part of our brief that the building would enable the museum to borrow pieces from the Louvre. We’ve brought the building into the 21st century, and now they can.”


  • Client: Musée d’Arts de Nantes
  • Architect: Stanton Williams
  • Design team M&E engineer: Max Fordham & GEFI
  • Acoustic & lighting engineer: Max Fordham
  • Structural & envelope engineer: RFR Artelia & Sepia
  • Quantity surveyor: Artelia
  • Wayfinding and identity: Cartlidge Levene (with Stanton Williams)
  • Main contractor: Bouygues Bâtiment Grand Ouest