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The Art Extension

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Buildings around the world are being extended all the time but the challenges are more visible with art museums and any deficiencies less forgivable. Art museum extensions are over-represented in the media landscape. This could be because art museums are usually prestigious commissions to begin within so art museum extensions must be too. Or, art museums might be more prone to extensions because there’s more art now. After all, it’s quite likely there’s more art being produced than lost. All this art needs to be put somewhere and it’s a problem. We can’t insist that no new art be produced, we can’t just throw away some of the old stuff, and we can’t ask museums with a surfeit to donate some to those without. It’s not going to happen and so we build new art museums and extend existing ones. These extensions often involve reworking entrances and circulation so when museum directors and architects talk about improving access and circulation, what they’re really talking about is increasing capacity, throughput and ultimately revenue.

Horizontal and vertical extensions are both ways of enhancing the utility and extending the life of a building. If there’s the land, extending sideways is always the better way to enlarge a building since it involves no structural load assessment and consequent limitations on weight, structure, and construction. It also causes less trauma to both building and tenants. It may be simpler to build horizontally but it’s more difficult to pull off aesthetically. With vertical additions, the additional storeys build upon a base and make that difficult whole less difficult, even if it is taller. This can’t be said of sideways extensions that upset a wholeness supposed to have existed, especially if there was a symmetry to begin with. What to do?

Horizontal extensions must either 1) forge some new unity by conflating with the old to form a new whole, 2) sit alongside it in some new juxtaposition that preserves the aesthetic integrity of the older building or 3) extend the original building in the same materials and style. This last option is rarely exercised as it destroys the integrity of the original and replaces it with something neither genuinely new nor old. There’s also the problem of the materials and skills to manipulate them either no longer being available or, if they are, expensive to procure. Even if this is overcome, the new extension will still be the result of new requirements and thus sit uneasily in time.

The main design problem Gwathmey Siegel faced with their 1992 Solomon R. Guggenheim Addition was how to make the larger and taller extension not appear attention-getting or overbearing. It’s no small task. Gwathmey Siegel did well by creating a separate volume with no obvious physical links to the existing building and by allow us to sense a relationship via neutral colors, not too much visible glass, and the barest minimum of shared motifs. It’s all about that E89th St. corner view. Nobody cares about the view from E88th St. although it once looked like it was going to be the main one.

Having said that, since the extension was completed, the number of photographs taken from the E88th corner so that the museum obscures the extension shows that not everyone approves. All the same, it’s a rare instance of architects extending an art gallery and displaying some art rather than attempting to create some.

Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Yale Architcture and Design building is not an art gallery and was never as precious as Solomon R Guggenheim but Gwathmey Siegel’s addition is aesthetically serviceable and, who knows, might have been approved by the stakeholders for being no more than that? Underegging is better than over. Gwathmey Siegel have reused that Solomon R device of the overscaled window opening but in response to what I can’t say. The six grouped windows look a bit domestic but maybe it’s not about the windows but the grouping that creates some “verticality” from the white render. [If so, it’s underplayed, but extending the “opening” down another level might have overplayed it.] What we can be sure of is that nothing in this elevation is an accident, even if we don’t understand the intended effect. It’s definitely not upstaging the older building.

It’s clear which of the three approaches was taken by the then Richard Rogers Partnership’s 1982 proposed extension to London’s National Gallery. I’m a great believer in fire escapes and an occasional tower but I don’t think anyone’s sorry this proposal wasn’t built. The future always ages badly.

The same can be said about (and probably for) ZHA’s Sackler Gallery extension to London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s a strange parasite that denies the host that magnifies its effect.

Somewhat softer, there’s also Manuelle Gautrand Architecture’s addition to Roland Simounet’s 1983 Lille Modern Art Museum. Above is a before and below are two afters. Size and scale agree but little else. It seems sensitive when compared with the previous three examples.

One important subset of extensions includes those that don’t seem like extensions because it and any existing building are not freestanding volumes but part of a streetscape, allowing the connection between them to be either hidden or downplayed. Daniel Libeskind’s 1996 V&A Museum Extension proposal is the best example. The question is now one of aesthetic (i.e. physical+conceptual) unity (or lack of) with the street rather than any particular building.

His 2004 London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre building on London’s Holloway Road does the same thing with building stock more difficult to love but is none the less effective for it.

Project managers say the best way to solve a problem is to avoid it and that’s what Studio Libeskind did with their 2006 extension to Denver Art Museum. It avoids the aesthetic pitfalls of extensions by ignoring the problem and being a detached building with no conceptual connection to the existing building and the only physical one being an enclosed walkway like many an airport terminal building.

The studio’s 2007 Royal Ontario Museum mashup intersects old and new rather than conflating them or juxtaposing them to create something new. The effect relies on the contrast. Mashups like this add but also take away.

It wouldn’t be much of an extension (or even expansion) if two buildings were to occupy the same place but this aerial photograph shows we’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg.


The 2000 Swiss Embassy Extension in Berlin by Diener & Diener Architeckten is my only non art museum example. Clearly, it has been extended yet the end openings create a new symmetry and implied whole. On the building already there, it looks as if the rightmost bay has been extended out and a door opening blocked in order to reduce relief and so downplay an existing symmetry.

However, this photo from 1945 shows the building with that bay already extended and bomb damage to what might have been an earlier extension.

In the Diener & Diener’s extension and remodelling, there’s other stuff happening around the back and on oblique views where the main facade is either unseen or less dominant. I understand this next oblique view as the extensions and remodeling saying “the past is the past” while still being respectful of that past.

Swiss Embassy Berlin_Diener & Diener Architects_Photo Christian Richters

I.M. Pei’s 1984 extension to The Louvre is a mostly underground lobby and circulation space accessed via the famous pyramid which reads as an apparently detached addition. Although different in material and shape, the pyramid has reassuring associations of antiquity and its position announces it as “the key that unlocks the entrance to The Louvre”. It manages to be both new and old. A good call.

Venturi and Scott-Brown also didn’t have an easy job proposing an extension to London’s National Gallery. Their 1991 Sainsbury Wing extension is in the news again for Selldorf Architects proposed remodelling to make it “more visible and easier to navigate”. Regardless, as a building mass it does the right thing by joining two different street frontages, hiding the connection deep within a gap, and by mirroring the existing building on the other side of that gap, but with less (and less identical) mirroring with distance. It’s a complex but comprehensible device. It’s contextualism, but not as we knew it or even as we know it now.

This idea of mirroring about a gap and the extension doing its own thing (whatever that turns out to be) at a distance gives good results. This is what happens with the 1995 extension to Kazuo Shinohara’s 1983 Ukiyoe Museum in Matsumoto. That’s it on the left, mirrored across the gap, but variation increasing with distance.

I find references to this extension having been designed by architect Kuniharu Haba but can’t verify this. I’d never heard of him and can also find no other mention of him. [I had the intriguing thought that maybe Kuniharu Haba is a pseudonym?] But whomever Kuniharu Haba is, it was a tricky commission if ever there was one. I can’t help wondering why Shinohara wasn’t asked. Or perhaps he was and had to refuse the job for some reason, perhaps because it was two years before his effective retirement. To be honest, I’d always thought this extension was designed by Shinohara because of the apparently [to me, anyway] contrivedly uncharacteristic “playfulness” of the extension’s brushstroke gla`zing. Shinohara could never been seen to be copying anyone, including himself. Even the existing and new end walls are the same in different ways.

After Libeskind’s Studio proposal for London ’s V&A Museum, Hufton + Crow kept their heads down and didn’t scare the horses with their 2017 mostly underground extension.

New York’s MoMA has a history of extensions to its original 1939 building by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. In the 1950s and 1960s came additions by Philip Johnson. In 1984 came a doubling of exhibition space and a residential tower dumped on it by Cesar Pelli and Associates. In 2004, Yoshio Taniguchi reorganized the sculpture garden, added 630,000 sq.ft (58.5 sq.m) of space and unified the by then several facades. The latest extension and reworking by Diller Scofidio and Renfro increases the area by 30% and reworks access and circulation yet again. Facade changes are largely cosmetic but here’s a YouTube link to all the other work done.

We can expect to see more buildings but especially art museums extended and their access and circulation reworked. It will always be a challenge with prestige projects such as art museums. Yoshio Taniguchi’s extension and remodelling was highly praised at the time but, in the end, was around for only 16 years. I think we’re being taught to not get too attached to buildings.

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