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M Museum by Stéphane Beel Architecten, Leuven, Belgium

M Museum radically reinvigorates a local cultural institution through the deft stitching together of new buildings with historical elements. Photography by Dennis Gilbert

In September 2009, Leuven’s Vander Kelen-Mertens Museum, now simply and fashionably known as M, reopened following an expansion programme coordinated by Gent-based architect Stéphane Beel. Radically reinvigorating a cherished local institution, the 20 million euro (£18 million) project involved the design of two new buildings and the rationalisation and refurbishment of existing elements.

Since 1917, the 17th-century mansion of Leuven’s former mayor Leopold Vander Kelen and his wife Maria Mertens has housed the city’s municipal museum, but the house is now just one element in an ambitious curatorial and physical restructuring. Begun nearly a decade ago, it aims to consolidate the museum’s historic role in the cultural life of Leuven, a picturesque Flemish town north-east of Brussels. So far the rejuvenated museum is proving popular, with 125,000 visitors attending the inaugural exhibition of Flemish medieval painter and sculptor Rogier van der Weyden.

Stéphane Beel’s thoughtful, ascetic architecture is perhaps too easily typecast as part of a now maturing generation of Belgian minimalists that also includes Robbrecht en Daem and Christian Kieckens.

Yet as this project shows, with its complexities of programme, context and legacy of existing buildings, the architect is also keenly alert to the nuances of the relationship between history and modernity.

‘The existing and the new, the surroundings and the design are autonomous yet linked,’ says Beel. ‘The spatial, social and cultural elements of the surroundings shape the design, yet are also transformed by it. They are familiar and strange. The new strengthens the old while distancing itself from it.’

Like many municipal museums, Leuven’s began life as an 18th-century cabinet of curiosities originally housed in the town hall. The addition of paintings enhanced the collection, to the point where it quickly outgrew its setting. In 1917, Victor Vander Kelen donated his parental home to the city on the condition that the museum would bear the family name and that it would be open at least one day a week to the public. This acted as an impetus for expansion, with the museum authorities subsequently acquiring properties surrounding the site on Vanderkelenstraat, in the medieval heart of the city.

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By 2000 the collection had swelled to around 46,000 objects. Encompassing sculpture, painting, prints, drawings, the decorative arts and archaeological relics, they tell the story of Leuven, with medieval Flemish sculpture and 19th-century painting especially well represented. But there were also problems: no space for contemporary visual arts, inadequate storage and archival facilities, plus the museum itself was a poorly interconnected melange of different architectural eras and styles. Despite its prominent site and burgeoning collection, it had become a kind of museological Cinderella, prompting a critical re-evaluation of both its cultural mission and relationship with the city.

In 2004 the city held a competition to redevelop the museum site. Beel’s winning proposal, which prevailed over a shortlist of five, involved the restoration of the Vander Kelen-Mertens house and an adjacent building from the former University College of Sint-Ivo. These historic elements are augmented by two major new additions, a linear block and a separate freestanding tower. Clad in skins of finely jointed cream stone and perforated by large glazed openings set precisely flush with the facades, both buildings are rigorous distillations of geometry and materials.

Weighted, poised and utterly devoid of extraneous features, this is an architecture of control and composure.

At its north-east corner, the linear block is crowned with a kind of modern outlook tower that duels with the nearby gothic profile of Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven’s principal church.

Like pieces positioned on a chessboard, new and existing elements are arranged around a tranquil courtyard garden. But though the larger linear block runs parallel with Vanderkelenstraat, it draws back from the street, effectively loosening the tight urban weave of the medieval core and introducing new views to the garden and house beyond.

Slightly surreal, a preserved stone portico marks the main entrance, like a mislaid piece of historic scenery. Part of the new museum cantilevers out to meet the portico (a surviving fragment from a building destroyed in the First World War), but it does not connect with it. Like an architectural air kiss, this proximity without contact creates a moment of exquisite tension.

The cantilever shelters a gently inclined entrance courtyard leading down to a subterranean public concourse that runs the length of the building. At one end, a bookshop and café face on to Savoystraat, intimating conviviality; at the other is the more cloistered space of the museum’s new auditorium. On my visit it was showing Walter Verdin’s video interpretation of Descent from the Cross, van der Weyden’s greatest work, but unable to be moved from Madrid’s Prado, even for a major exhibition.

Both auditorium and concourse are illuminated by what Beel describes as ‘light eaters’, large openings carved into the ceiling.

Exhibition spaces are the usual neutral containers, but no two are volumetrically or experientially the same, and there is more exquisite tension between the clinically understated interiors and the weathered polychromy of medieval saints, saviours and madonnas. Throughout, Beel orchestrates a delightful sense of permeability that reconnects the museum more explicitly with the city. Tactical cuts, slots and shifts open up the building from the inside and define key views to the outside.

‘We can see the street and the street can see us’, says chief curator Veronique Vandekerchove. The city becomes an exhibit, its pinnacled skyline filtered and framed as visitors move through the galleries, while external terraces open up curatorial and social possibilities. Beel also threads a pedestrian route through the museum and garden, so the complex becomes part of the everyday, and in doing so regains its historic place in city life.

Architect Stéphane Beel Architecten, Gent, Belgium
Structural engineer Bureau M Lavreyson
Services engineer Relandts en Rys

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