After years of scientifically based renovation, the world-famous Ghent altarpiece by the Van Eyck Brothers has been restored to its original state at Belgium’s Saint Bavo Cathedral. Bressers Architects, who are restoration specialists, undertook the works which began in October 2012 and will conclude in 2025.
The Ghent Altarpiece was previously installed in the villa chapel in the 1980s. Taking into account both religious and cultural-tourist points of view, the commissioners decided to relocate the altarpiece following its restoration. The new location is now the Sacrament Chapel, which is the central and largest apsidal chapel of the high choir. At the same time, a new visitor centre was built in the crypt and the choir from the cathedral.
Bressers Architects further developed a new circulation plan for the building to improve accessibility so that the public can now take in the cathedral, the crypts and the altarpiece more easily.
Upon entering the cathedral, visitors become aware of the greatness of what is to come. The brass entrance to the visitor centre in the northern transept was intended to blend with the cathedral as a whole.
Meanwhile, on the site of the cathedral and chapter house, a readable and intuitive promenade has been designed to open up and guide visitors through the public, semi-public and private spaces. The area around the cathedral slopes down towards the Reep.
As a consequence, different zones can be visited on different levels. By creating the slopes and forming new openings in the building envelope, the ‘promenade’ connects all spaces smoothly.
The various spaces are linked together by a common simplicity in detailing and homogeneous choice in materials with recurring elements acting to unify the spaces. Brass and wooden elements are already frequently present in the cathedral are added to with new infills in the same material.
Throughout, brass forms a golden thread that embroiders new interventions such as ramps, doors, counters, stairs, railing while wood is that subordinate material and applied to functional elements such as lockers and cabinets, thus allowing the brass to be the prominent material.
Before the renovation, only 30% of the site was accessible to people with disabilities. After completion of the project, this percentage will rise to 100%. As such, the following interventions have been included: Integration of a new passenger lift (accessible to wheelchairs), an easily accessible staircase with adapted handrails and parapets, new ramps, automated revolving and sliding doors, universally accessible sanitary facilities, adapted furniture, podotactile floor studs, as well as speech technology in the lift.
Dealing with a large movable collection of objects and art treasures in the cathedral was also an important point in the design as there is a desire, on one hand, to facilitate exhibitions and on the other hand to provide storage. In the restored area of the crypt, nave and the choir, many art exhibits are now explicitly displayed. Several showcases display important art treasures and also provide ideal storage conditions. The intention is to increase the number of art treasures and exhibits on display over time while respecting the historic nature of the architecture.
Sustainability was central to the project with details such as appropriate insulating materials carefully considered to ensure an energy-efficient shell where possible. Elements such as electricity, heating, ventilation and fire safety were all thoroughly studied and thoughtfully integrated into the project.