Twenty years after the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in Spain, clad in swooping titanium panels and curving glass, architects still contend with the desire for museums to serve as eye-catching icons and engines of economic regeneration. Recently built museums balance these expectations with a focus on enhancing public access to cultural facilities, responding sensitively to the surrounding architectural context, adding open space and event plazas, and incorporating sustainable design principles.
The following ten projects—all completed during the past five years—include adaptive uses of historic buildings, expansions and additions aimed at making old museum buildings more welcoming to the public, a new museum that shelters a medieval chamber, a facility inserted beneath a culturally significant square, and a maritime museum that opens access to a formerly industrial waterfront.
Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture, urban design, and real estate writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.
1. Design Museum
In order to get permission from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to build a residential development at the edge of Holland Park, London-based developer Chelsfield needed to find a cultural user for the site’s Commonwealth Institute pavilion, a modernist 1960s-era structure listed on the National Heritage List for England. The Design Museum, devoted to showcasing contemporary design, needed a larger, more accessible home than its old one next to London’s Tower Bridge. Though dilapidated, the pavilion not only met that need, but also offered a striking copper roof with a parabolic shape.
OMA of Rotterdam and local firm Allies and Morrison retained the roof, gutted and reconfigured the structure, replaced the exterior’s distinctive blue glass panels with energy-efficient counterparts, added a landscaped plaza, and created two basement levels to triple the square footage provided by the museum’s previous location. The top floor includes a restaurant with views of Holland Park. Local designer John Pawson was responsible for the museum interiors. OMA also designed the three new apartment buildings surrounding the museum, which opened in 2016.
San Francisco, California
Founded in 1969, the Exploratorium draws children and adults to its hands-on science exhibits. Having outgrown its location at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco’s Marina District, the museum chose to renovate a dilapidated 1931 warehouse at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, midway between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. Much more accessible to public transportation and downtown, the new location revitalizes an inactive part of the waterfront and offers three times the display space of its predecessor.
With the goal of reaching net-zero energy consumption, the museum uses bay water for cooling, filters and stores rainwater for toilet flushing, and generates electricity with rooftop solar panels. A former parking lot turned plaza provides space for exhibits and events. Restored access on the site’s perimeter brings visitors close to the bay. The new Exploratorium opened in 2013. Local firm EHDD was responsible for the design, with local firm Page & Turnbull as preservation architect; local developer Wilson Meany managed the development.
3. National Museum
Dedicated to the history of the city of Szczecin, the National Museum is tucked underground to preserve the history of the square it occupies. During World War II, when the city was part of Germany, Allied bombing destroyed the site’s townhouses. It remained an empty square. In 1970, the military killed 16 people who had gathered there to protest sharp government-mandated price increases, and the square became a site of commemoration and a symbol of freedom.
The museum’s architects, KWK Promes of Katowice, Poland, chose to preserve views of the new philharmonic hall, which opened in 2014, by dropping the museum beneath ground level and retaining the site as open space. Opened in 2016, the concrete building rises at one corner, where wall partitions pivot vertically to reveal the entrances. The museum’s roof undulates, providing the city with its only hill, intended as a site for skateboarding or sledding and serving as an amphitheater for outdoor concerts. All the site’s existing trees remain.
4. National Museum of African American History and Culture
The newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has a three-tiered form inspired by the corona at the tops of Yoruban caryatids, traditional wooden columns carved in the shape of a woman. The museum’s corona consists of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels patterned to filter light and views; at night, the building glows on the National Mall when lit from within. A cantilevered porch, referencing the porches of traditional houses in the South, shades the front entry. Sixty percent of the 400,000-square-foot (37,000 sq m) structure is below ground to keep within area height restrictions.
Around the building, a water feature, a reading grove with native trees, a plaza, a courtyard garden, and pathways to the rest of the National Mall provide visitors with spaces to reflect. Sustainable strategies include a roof garden, ground-source heat pumps, and extensive use of natural light. Opened in 2016, the museum was designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, comprising the Freelon Group of Durham, North Carolina; David Adjaye of London-based Adjaye Associates; New York City–based Davis Brody Bond; and the local office of SmithGroupJJR.
5. Porsgrunn Maritime Museum
The port city of Porsgrunn in the county of Telemark is in the process of redeveloping its former shipyards and industrial sites along the Skien River, reconnecting residents to the waterfront. The Telemark Museum, based in Skien, held an architecture competition to design a new museum for Porsgrunn that would educate future generations about the city’s long maritime history. The team of COBE of Copenhagen and Transform of Aarhus, Denmark, won with a design that reinterprets the sloping roofs of the neighboring smaller-scale buildings, fitting into the context yet clearly reading as contemporary.
Opened in 2013, the museum has a long, zigzagging form that breaks up the structure’s mass into 11 volumes. Aluminum shingles clad the facade; manufactured locally, they reference the scales of fish and reflect the water and sky, changing colors under different weather conditions. The top floor consists of open, flexible space for exhibitions; the ground floor contains a museum shop, administrative offices, a club room for sailors, and a café that opens to a new riverfront promenade.
6. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, California
In 1995, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art moved to a new home in the city’s South of Market Area. Designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the building resembles a fortress: squat and symmetrical, clad in red brick, topped by a large oculus, it seemed complete in itself. To accommodate a rapidly growing collection, the museum commissioned an expansion from Oslo firm Snøhetta, with local firm EHDD as associate architect. Given a tight urban site at the back of Botta’s building, Snøhetta drew inspiration from San Francisco’s fog and water, cladding the ten-story addition with 700 uniquely shaped white fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels that ripple and bulge asymmetrically as they rise, contrasting with its brick counterpart without overshadowing it.
Six outdoor sculpture terraces provide views of the city’s rapidly changing skyline. One terrace holds what is billed as the largest public living wall in the country. Opened in 2016, the addition nearly triples exhibition space to 170,000 square feet (16,000 sq m) and adds 43,000 square feet (4,000 sq m) of public space with artworks that the public can view without charge, including a massive walkthrough sculpture by Richard Serra.
7. Speed Art Museum
A Beaux-Arts structure that opened in 1927 on the University of Louisville campus, the Speed Art Museum grew with a hodgepodge of additions in the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s. For its most recent expansion, the museum chose the New York office of wHY to perform what the firm’s principal, Kulapat Yantrasast, calls “architectural acupuncture”: strategic interventions at multiple points to open up the building to its surroundings.
The new North Pavilion extends toward Third Street; clad in folded aluminum panels and fritted glass, it boosts the museum’s street presence and triples the museum’s exhibition capacity. The South Pavilion houses more galleries, a sculpture garden, and a 142-seat cinema. The cinema, café, and museum shop can all be reached independently of the museum for after-hours use. New outdoor areas add more than 20,000 square feet (1,900 sq m) of programmable space. Inside, wHY clarified disjointed circulation, revealed ground-floor activities to passersby, and improved the education center’s accessibility and visibility. The addition was completed in 2016.
8. Waterford Medieval Museum
The Waterford City Council decided to boost tourism and regenerate the city’s neglected historic core, known as the Viking Triangle, by creating three museums there under the collective name Waterford Treasures. One of those institutions, the new Medieval Museum, fits into a constrained site, located above the lower chamber of the 13th-century Choristers’ Hall and surrounded by medieval, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century buildings.
Designed by Waterford City Council Architects—Rupert Maddock, Bartosz Rojowski, and Agnieszka Rojowska—the new museum wraps around the back of the neoclassical Christchurch Cathedral. The swooping form, clearly contemporary, contrasts with the historic context while the Dundry stone of its cladding matches that of the cathedral. Glass panels at the entrance provide glimpses of the preserved Choristers’ Hall in the basement. The facility also incorporates expanded backstage facilities for the 19th-century Theatre Royale. The museum was completed in 2013.
9. Westmoreland Museum of American Art
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art opened in 1959 in a neo-Georgian brick building with an entrance portico held aloft by four large stone columns. New gifts to the collection brought the need for an expansion. In the process, the museum asked New York City–based Ennead Architects to make the front facade less formal and more inviting and to create a cohesive look for the old and new portions.
To accomplish this, Ennead removed the portico and columns, added a new aluminum and precast concrete screen along the front, and inserted three vertical glass panels at the entrance to bring in natural light and provide transparency. On the eastern side of the building, a new zinc-clad wing cantilevers forward from the hilltop site, its glazed end granting views of the city spread out below. A new landscaped garden and sculpture garden surrounds the structure, strengthening connections to the surroundings. The museum had its grand reopening in 2015.
10. Whitney Museum of American Art
New York City
The Whitney Museum’s migration from its longtime spot on Madison Avenue to the Manhattan’s burgeoning Meatpacking District was a dramatic change. Also dramatic: the move from a 1960s Brutalist fortress designed by Marcel Breuer to a new, eight-story building designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, in collaboration with local firm Cooper Robertson. Opened in 2015, the new structure looks outward, with a large ground-floor lobby surrounded on three sides by glass.
The facility has nearly three times the square footage of the Breuer building, enough room for a 170-seat retractable theater with river views, a top-floor café, expanded administrative and conservation space, and an education center. The lobby’s exhibition space is open free to the public. Expansive windows to the west provide views of the Hudson River. The museum also has 13,000 square feet (1,200 sq m) of outdoor exhibition space, including cascading terraces that overlook the city’s skyline and the adjacent High Line to the east. UL