The architecture of democracy

Eleanor Mills, 10.05.2017
Can good museum design build political bridges?
“We have done everything we can to make the architecture open and democratic,” says Patrick Richard, one of the directors of Stanton Williams architects, who has led the renovation of the grand Musee d’arts de Nantes in the eponymous coastal city in north western France.

The museum will open to the public on 23 June this year, but I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the building recently with Patrick Richard, the leading architect of the project, and the director of the museum, Sophie Lévy.

There are umpteen museums opening abroad this year, so why is Nantes so important?

There are two reasons. Firstly, against the backdrop of the French elections, Nantes’s status has been crucial as one of the few socialist cities in the country, and retains its socialist mayor Johanna Rolland. In other words, most residents of Nantes have not supported the nationalist MP and runner for French prime minister, Marine Le Pen, and have largely backed the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, which recently culminated in success.

Secondly, Stanton Williams is the architect practice that has been chosen to design the Museum of London’s new home in Smithfields, London, so the firm’s work in France could be an indication of what we can expect to see in 2022 when the London museum opens.

A great bastion of traditional patriotism, the Musee d’arts de Nantes is housed in a grand 19th-century palatial stone building. Stanton Williams architects were tasked with transforming this formal exterior to convey openness and access – so very important in such hairy political times.

How Richard and his team at Stanton Williams have achieved this in Nantes is masterful. First of all, the building has been cleaned, so even on an overcast day on the French Atlantic coast, the warm white façade of the museum will glow with benevolence. The entrance hall has been opened up, with minimalist modern ticket desks inside, and the restaurant and library are immediately accessible from this space.

But the really clever bit is that Richard has imbued the whole interior with a noticeably generous sense of light.

From lifts, to the sculpture court and the building’s new translucent glass ceilings, everything has been done to get as much daylight in to the museum as possible. It’s a really generous way of re-interpreting a traditional building, and means that visitors begin to see the works on show differently – whether a cloud moves over the sun, rays flood in, or the calm light of a rainy day brings serene clarity to the paintings on display.

I’m not going to talk about the knockout art collection the museum holds here – it takes in works from the 3rd century to the present day. Stanton Williams naturally had to create the right environmental conditions for all of these, and there’s also a brand new cube-like extension to house four storeys’ worth of contemporary art.

But most fundamentally, what Stanton Williams has done, as Richard says, is create an architecture of democracy, one that welcomes with open arms and asks visitors to relax in the space whether looking at art, or chatting to one another.

This is what a subtle architectural renovation and intervention can do for a museum. If it’s done well it can change everything. Richard talked about the outcome of the project being a “trait d’union”, or a union of two things, in this case being the historical and contemporary.

Stanton Williams achieved a similarly modern architectural intervention at Compton Verney in Warwickshire back in 2004. Now Nantes, next the Museum of London.

A former market, the museum’s new Smithfields site should give the architecture practice the ultimate democratic space to play with.

Whether in the UK, France, or elsewhere, and as the General Election looms, let’s hope that museums continue to grow as spaces of reconciliation in such troubling political times.



International, United Kingdom, London