The complex world of museum extension projects

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Originally appeared in the LEAF Architectural Review

Extensions to beloved public museums are some of the most demanding and sensitive in architecture, requiring significant changes to historic properties and the treading of a fine line between reverence and modernity. So what makes an extension a success or failure? Oliver Hotham talks it through with Louis Becker, design director and principal partner at Henning Larsen, John McElgunn, associate at Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, and the University of Miami’s Richard John, former advisor to the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture.

Contemporary upgrades to iconic museums always inflame passions. Many are much-loved public spaces, and the introduction of what’s been criticised as “gestural modernism” by Marcus Binney of Save Europe’s Heritage lends itself to a perception of ruthless architects ruining cultural artefacts for the sake of an attention-grabbing headline.

At least that’s according to Richard John, a critic of modernism in architecture. John ran the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture at time when the Prince’s opinions became well known – in many ways due to his controversial description of the National Gallery extension as a “monstrous carbuncle”.

“When these kinds of projects are unsuccessful, it contributes to a feeling that the architectural profession is out of touch,” he argues. “One of the problems of talking about museum extensions is that of course in many cases they’re more like giant billboards than about solving genuine architectural problems.”

Many point to Daniel Libeskind’s “Crystal” extension to the Royal Ontario Museum as a glaring example of this type of hubristic design.  For one thing, there’s little attempt to evoke the pre-existing style of the property: instead, Libeskind’s concept radically subverts it with a deconstructivist “crystalline” structure. Predictably, not everyone’s a fan.

But when extensions are successful, they really can transform a gallery and rejuvenate a space. MUMA’s recent work on the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, for example, has won awards for its ingenuity and seen it described as “one of the great museum achievements of recent years” by the Art Fund.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ extension to the British Museum is another interesting case study, expanding its special exhibitions gallery and allowing for a new logistics and loading bay, the first in the 260 year history of the museum. When the practice was granted the task of designing the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, they knew the project was going to be immensely challenging  – and that they would face tremendous scrutiny, from both the art world and general public. The building has enormous cultural and social significance and, with millions of visitors every year, the new extension would be crucial to its development in the coming decades. The practice was tasked with creating a whole new wing with a diverse range of functions: hosting scientific research facilities, conservation facilities, an exhibition hall, as well as collection storage and study rooms. So how to design it?

“We really wanted to make a building that was clearly of our age, not something that was Georgian or Beaux-arts, which the rest of the British Museum is,” says John McElgunn, associate at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, who played a key role in the development of the project. “But that’s tough, taking people from Georgian buildings and putting them into a modern steel and glass building is a massive cultural shift.”

This essential challenge, of balancing the need for a modernising upgrade with an appreciation for the cultural heritage of the site, was one which Danish practice Henning Larsen faced when given the job of building a new outpost of one of Sweden’s most popular art galleries, the National Museum, as part of an expansion of the Jamtli open air museum in Östersund, due for completion in 2018.

“There’s this delicate balance,” says Louis Becker, design director and principal partner at the practice. “In a way you don’t want to do a strange alien animal so there’s some kind of narrative or bigger vision, and at the same time there’s a reason they want to do something different. It’s really a balancing act. There’s no recipe, you test it a lot of times and you try stuff and you redo it until you find it.”

Henning Larsen took inspiration from traditional, regional designs for the museum, modelling the new wing on old-fashioned Swedish wooden buildings in an attempt to celebrate local customs and create an understated and flexible environment.

“Compared to some of our colleagues with a more expressive language, we’re really trying to allow the functional space for the exhibition to be built on,” argues Becker. “That’s the goal for the museum, where it’s more a play with daylight, and about simplicity of the space.”

Like many of these projects, Henning Larsen won the Östersund project through a competition. This has its pros and cons, of course: Henning’s architects couldn’t consult with experts or the public as much as they would have liked, and were given a very specific brief with little room for manoeuvre.

Richard John argues that it’s this competition system that leads to many of the more unpopular extension projects. Architects are under pressure to create a big impression in a short space of time, and can’t always take the time to consider more even-handed and nuanced designs.

“It’s then crucial that their entry makes a bit splash, that it’s about broad brush strokes,” says John. “About very simple and compelling ideas so it stands out when juries are considering lots of designs.”

Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners’s entry was bold but understated. With 175 members of staff set to move into the new building, it was unthinkable that there would be no consultation with the people who would ultimately be using the space on a day-to-day basis – a process that, McElgunn admits, was “exhausting”.

“Everyone on the museum side was welcome to chip in,” he says. “That made for a pretty unusual client.”

A trait that all these successful projects share, according to John, is an awareness of the spaces they find themselves in and a necessary respect for the museum. The purpose of an extension, of course, is to complement, and, despite his scepticism of these kinds of projects, he’s a fan of the British Museum extension and, if anything, thinks it could have been more ambitious.

“Humility is a key word,” he says. “[Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners] have shown incredible humility in their approach, to the existing buildings, to the context.”

It’s not hard to see why many museums feel the pressure to upgrade. As belts tighten across Europe, publically-owned cultural assets are increasingly turning to private benefactors to fund expansions, and are more reliant than ever on ticket sales to turn a profit and stay in business. This is the thinking behind the British Museum’s special exhibitions wing, and one way to accomplish this, of course, is to raise the museum’s profile with a headline-grabbing extension.

“I think there’s a thing that if you want to have sponsors, you want to make it posh,” says Becker, when asked why museums often opt for the show-stopping over the practical. “Not rich necessarily, but something that really sets an agenda. Sometimes these institutions are totally trapped in that.”

As iconic as it is now, it’s easy to forget that the Pyramid at the Louvre, Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei’s iconic extension to the world’s most famous museum, was controversial when first unveiled in 1989. Many criticised the project’s shape for jarring with the traditionalist architecture which surrounds it, and many more criticised President Mitterand for commissioning it, with one critic famously accusing him of feeding an egotistical “Pharaonic complex”. The extensions was certainly political, part of the ambitious Grands Projets plan to upgrade France’s civic buildings. But it was also intended to be a solution to the many technical challenges the Louvre faced as it approached the 21st century.

“The Pyramid is very elegant, but it’s the tip of the iceberg,” argues John. “Most of what I.M. Pei did was underground, and was about solving incredible problems in terms of circulation.”

“I remember the Louvre used to be very difficult to visit. You’d look for things and you constantly had to go outside – you would leave after spending the whole day there without seeing certain things.”

I.M. Pei’s extension changed all this, and these days the monument is as uncontroversial as the traditional styles which surround it, as much a landmark as the rest of them. And without the upgrade, the Louvre might not see the close to 10 million yearly visitors (the most of any museum on Earth) it now enjoys – an astonishing testament to the power of blending the modern and the classic, and the benefits of taking risks. In a few years, even the most controversial extensions might enjoy the same legacy.

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