With a single monumental gesture, a design team led by MVRDV principal Nathalie de Vries has transformed a staid neoclassical chapel into a vibrant point of arrival at a museum of modern art on the outskirts of Rotterdam.
While the structure – a former hospital guesthouse for the poor, sick and elderly – looks virtually the same on the outside as it did after its completion in the late 18th century, the interior was completely renovated before the Stedelijk took over the space in 1940. Only the grey chapel, installed in 1787 by Dutch architect Jan Giudici to serve as the guesthouse’s spiritual centre, has remained the same: an historic gem at the centre of the museum that was nonetheless neglected, virtually unusable as a museum space due to its lackluster acoustics.
Another round of renovations, completed in 2006, relocated the main entrance to the basement, making it easy for guests to overlook the stair leading to the main reception area. Re-shifting the entrance, along with the gift shop and a small cafe, to the chapel solved this problem but created another: the chapel is a listed monument, meaning there could be no permanent changes to the existing structure.
MVRDV elected to encircle the 500-square-metre space in towering bookshelves that would meet all the programmatic needs for reception, a cloakroom, the cafe and the retail spaces, all without disturbing the existing structure. The MDF shelves, painted in a brilliant red to add warmth and visual interest to the grey walls, clearly delineate the separation between old and new, meandering to highlight the pre-existing features of the chapel – including the windows and columns, the organ and the ornately carved pulpit – without interfering with them. The shelves, perforated to control humidity, also add copious display space for the gift shop’s wares, complete with built-in LED armatures.
To complete the space, MVRDV installed a large chandelier designed by Italian firm Viabizzuno, which comprises two eccentric rings that loop like racetracks through the two-storey space. As with the shelves, the lighting elements can be removed without leaving a trace on the historic chapel.