American white oak dresses staircase in former Flemish Renaissance palace

Hof van Busleyden is one of the most beautiful buildings in Mechelen, a Flemish city located between Brussels and Antwerp. With a delicate brickwork and sandstone facade, it was built for Hiëronymus van Busleyden, member of the Great Council of the Netherlands, a prominent humanist and friend of both Erasmus and Thomas Moore.

The building became a city museum in 1938 after being badly damaged during World War I. In 2009, designs for a renovation programme were approved with the intention to expand and modernise the museum.

The work for phase one of the project began in 2010 and was completed at the end of 2013. The first phase of the programme comprised of building a new underground extension nine metres below the palace’s central courtyard. On entering the museum, visitors walk through a large room featuring the museum’s reception desk.

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The room cleverly sets the tone of the project; plain white walls and door frames contrast with some of the building’s original features such as the brickwork on selected walls, the old floor beams in the ceilings and a wooden herringbone floor.

As visitors move through to the next room, they get a first glimpse of the grand staircase leading down to the museum’s underground extension. The architects, David Driesen from dmvA architects and Hans Le Compte from HLCr Architects, have created an effective contrast between plain white walls and surfaces clad in American white oak to make this monumental new staircase look delicate, sturdy and elegant.

“When the wall surfaces are predominantly white, the wood elements become positive and vice-versa,” explains David Driesen and Hans Le Compte. For example, the upper flight of stairs are painted in white whereas the underside and the banisters on the outside are all fitted in oak panelling, giving it a bold, modern style.

The second flight of stairs that leads visitors underground to the new extension is completely fitted in American white oak including the floors and ceilings of the stair landing.

The oak cladding creates a peaceful and warm environment. The central white metal handrail is echoed by two further side white handrails, which have been cut out inside the wall panelling to keep the wood surfaces flush and uncluttered.

The oak woodwork around the staircase, steps and landings is 22mm thick strips of American white oak. The joinery work was constructed with the utmost precision using CAD drawings and CNC machinery so that the vertical strips of oak and the joints run seamlessly from top to bottom at each level of the staircase.

The oak had to be vacuum impregnated first with a fire resistant finish to meet fire regulation requirements. The strips of quarter sawn white oak have been very carefully fitted to look smooth and seamless with a natural wax finish. On the stair landing, a glazed lift shaft also provides access.

The signposting on each floor level has been gouged in the wood panelling and painted in white. In addition, there are no skirting boards making the surfaces perfectly smooth and seamless. A small gap has been left between the edge of the oak steps and the oak wall cladding to enhance the volume of the staircase.

At the bottom of the staircase the visitor discovers a spacious underground hall with tall six metre high ceilings and a total surface area of 620m². The hall’s plain concrete walls and floors contrast starkly with the oak panelled staircase.

This vast exhibition area hides a sophisticated HVAC and lighting system, which rivals some of the most up to date museums. The air extraction system has been hidden behind thick concrete walls to cause the least noise disturbance whilst complying with stringent fire regulation requirements.

The ceiling lights are cleverly integrated into wave-shaped air extraction ducts, which are discreet and seamless. White lines on the concrete floor are a reference to the Renaissance when the notions of perspective drawing were first discovered.

Phase two is now underway and includes the renovation of the existing building and creating a new pedestrian circulation route through the former caretaker’s house. This second phase is due to be completed in 2018.

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