The construction of an archive building and reading room is an important step in the history of the Plantin Moretus museum, a late 16th century printing plant and publishing house recently inscribed in Unesco’s World Heritage list. Due to a conflictuous series of constraints, the archive building –the protected core of the museum - finds itself at the most public spot, along a narrow street in the historical city center of Antwerp. In this conflict, however, lies the key to the design.
The archive building is - not unlike a pyramid- a public mass: in openly protecting and hiding its precious contents from view, the crucial meaning of the archive is conveyed.
The design doesn’t compromise on any technical demand: an AA climate is realized, banning daylight and applying a double skin façade to ensure safety. A compact volume with an optimized layout in plan and section allows still 60% growth, giving the museum a future alongside its past.
Despite its autonomous appearance, the archive building is functionally carefully interwoven with the existing. Two adjacent buildings are minimally transformed to house the entrance facilities and the logistic spaces for the archive. The monumental gate is reactivated as an entrance gallery, leading to the existing backyard, which is given a pivotal role in the circulation route, with a view into the museum garden as a surprising surplus.
From this backyard, stairs and elevator lead the visitor to the reading room, which sits on top of the archive building as if on a mountain of knowledge. This position allows the reading room to gain unexpected qualities, the most striking being a view over the rooftops onto the main landmarks which define Antwerp’s skyline. Topped with a series of roof-size skylights, the timber clad reading room becomes a prime study location.
On the outside, the mass of the building is equally clad in timber. End grain wooden blocks, approximately the size of regular bricks, make a continuous surface both intriguing and tactile, with a subtle reference to the museum’s all wooden interiors. Along the full length of the façade runs a bronze balustrade, adding to the nondescript street a moment of public precision. This unexpected piece of urban furniture makes passersby slow down and look up in awe.