By the time the KMSKA reopens on 24 September 2022, Dikkie Scipio of KAAN Architects will have been working on the museum for almost 20 years. We look back over this adventure with the chief architect of the renovation master plan. KAAN Architects has turned a single museum into two different worlds. Dikkie Scipio realized over time that the way the museum is viewed is changing. And now the metamorphosis is complete.

On 6 June 2003, the Flemish Government Architect bOb Van Reeth issued an open call to draw up a master plan for the KMSKA. What prompted you to respond?

‘Twenty years ago, we were young architects who’d gained something of a reputation in housing. We had just completed our first really big project, construction of a 30,000 m² forensic institute. We thought we could take on the world: the confidence you get from youthful success... We were so keen to do the KMSKA that our entire 15-strong team went all out for it.’

Are there any advantages to embarking on such a big brief when you’re still young and reckless?

‘If we’d known then how complex the organization was behind the scenes, we might not have got involved. We drew up a master plan and assumed we’d be the architects responsible for executing the whole thing. But for legal and financial reasons, the master plan was sliced up. It seemed like an administrative thing at the time, only later was it apparent that the master plan really had been split into phases, with other architects taking charge of certain elements [the restoration of the exterior and the garden landscaping–ed.]. If we’d had been given the budget and the time in one go, the job would have been finished a long time ago. On the other hand, the people behind the initiative were very enthusiastic, even when not everything had been pinned down. The experience taught us that sometimes you also need to have faith that things will turn out all right in the end. And through this project, we’ve invested 20 years into learning how you need to build in Belgium.’

"'Through this project, we’ve invested 20 years into learning how you need to build in Belgium.' "
Dikkie Scipio

What’s it like to work on a project for so long?

‘I’m the last one who was there from the beginning. The building has become my child. My own kids have grown up in the meantime. The directors have changed, along with ministers and civil servants. And the Belgian Buildings Authority has given way to Flemish Support Services [which oversees renovation work on behalf of the Flemish Regional Government–ed.]. We’ve worked within four different organizational structures and have seen people go from being interns to managers. Even our senior project manager only joined the firm ten or eleven years ago.’

Was the collection something that attracted you?

‘The dual nature of building and collection was important to me from the outset. The building belongs to the collection and vice versa. The building was created to house that collection. By 2003, however, the museum was no longer a popular building and the collection was no longer widely known. The district in which it is located had to claw its way back out of a deep hole. Even though the museum has world-class holdings that are up there with the collections of the Tate or the Rijksmuseum. In the Netherlands they’d be shouting it from the rooftops: here there was a lot more modesty.’

You immediately got the neighbourhood involved in your design. Why is the connection with the locale and the city so important to you?

‘The 19th-century building lays claim to its place in the city. Once the fences are removed, it will be abundantly clear that this is a treasure house for Antwerp, for art. It stands very proudly in the city. And everything around it shares in that pride. I want to see people engage in a dialogue once more with their surroundings. We’ve lost that.’

" I want to see people engage in a dialogue once more with their surroundings. We’ve lost that. "
Dikkie Scipio

You have a feel for the history of the location too.

‘It’s weird that the museum was built on the site of a fortress intended to subjugate Antwerp [the citadel dated from the 16th-century revolt against Spanish rule. The Dutch garrisoned it in the early 19th century when Belgian sought its independence from the Netherlands–ed.]. Once the last Dutch bodies had been removed, the city council wasted no time in tearing it down – it wasn’t a monument it was keen to cherish. It’s amazing to think that a temple of art has risen in a place of such oppression and strife – so many layers of history stacked one on top of the other.’

And now you’ve added another layer to that history.

‘There was a great deal of quality in the original design, and I hope we’ve made that visible again. By adding something new, the building has been able to grow once more. So that you can take all the accumulated knowledge and that wonderful collection into the future. It’s great that you can do that with a building.

‘I have a design philosophy: an architect shouldn’t try to be fashionable. You have a social responsibility, especially when it comes to large-scale projects. Your building should be able to keep up with changing times. That, to me, is the ultimate form of sustainability.’

Is that why the two worlds don’t flow into one another?

‘In this instance, it offered something extra. When you enter, you discover after a while that there’s another gift waiting for you in the museum. The 19th-century architecture is so incredibly powerful. We’ve tried to make the new galleries equally worthy, without diminishing the power of the old building. It’s a matter of mutual respect. Restoring the grandeur of the original building was as essential as providing more space.

‘As an architect, you can choose to showcase your design very visibly or else to delay the surprise. I believe in the postponed moment: in many layers that slowly reveal themselves to you. That as a visitor, you’re drawn to places that aren’t simply functional. The spatial quality is an extra gift to you. There are little turns and doors throughout the design, which provide a touch of humour and playfulness. It enables the visitor to enter a genuine dialogue with the building.

‘The original building was carefully conceived and had a specific, comprehensible routing through roughly the same types of gallery. In the new museum, you get a sense of verticality. You focus there on the art and on spatiality rather than materiality. It’s the other way around when you go to the old museum. There, it’s the materials that are more important. It gives you a different view of art. It’s an interesting game.’

In the new museum galleries, a new, spatial surprise lurks around every corner. - Photo: Karin Borghouts
Through the restoration and color choice, KAAN Architects made the quality and grandeur of the original building visible again. - Photo: Karin Borghouts

You’re still working on the renovation of the offices. Then, bit by bit, the empty museum will fill up with art again.

‘The architecture is there to serve the art. The building now evokes warm feelings among the different users, and everyone wants to do something with it, from ballet to holding a concert. I hope that dialogue will continue. What are the arts? The museum is more than a repository for art, it’s also a place that says something about who we are. Or what we’re capable of. Whenever you read the news, you feel like crawling away and hiding in shame. Sometimes it helps to see what kind of beauty we’re capable of too.’

This article previously appeared in ZAAL Z.