With no shortage of historical buildings in need of expansion or repurposing, alterations of older architecture via contemporary interventions have flourished in the past four decades – particularly in service of new or growing art museums. These spaces represent the resilience of our historical legacy through contemporary times, demonstrating that the combination even of two vastly different architectural styles can be both beautiful and impressive. Here are ten of the best examples of contemporary interventions on historical buildings in art museums around the world.
The Louvre is one of the most prominent art museums in the world and arguably the most iconic example of marrying contemporary and historical architectural styles. The primary structure of the museum is designed in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical styles. Yet in the main courtyard of the complex sits I.M.Pei’s 1989 glass pyramid, a radical departure from the historical architecture surrounding it. Intended to invoke monumental architecture of the past while representing a stylistic break from tradition, the intervention has been both heavily criticized and deeply praised.
Another building with centuries of architectural history, the British Museum was originally a large neoclassical museum designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the 1800s. The Great Court, which was designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2000, unified the wings of the building in a central entrance space with an unconventional glass ceiling.
Unlike The Louvre and the British Museum, Daniel Libeskind’s 1988 deconstructivist intervention on Berlin’s original baroque Jewish Museum consisted of two apparently separate buildings that were only invisibly connected underground. Though respecting the older building by leaving it untouched, Libeskind’s adjacent intervention represents a new symbolic interpretation of Jewish history after the Holocaust, which occurred after the baroque building was built.
Originally a neo-classical palace from the mid 19th century, this museum in the Netherlands was modified in 2012-2013 by Bierman Henket architects. When the museum’s success led to a need for expansion, Henket chose to construct a new autonomous egg-like structure above the original palace rather than adjacent to it so as to preserve the solitude and symmetry of the original design.
Originally designed in the 19th century in the Grunderzeit style, this German art museum was transformed in 2012 by the architecture firm Schneider + Schumacher. Consisting of an underground expansion under the garden, Schneider + Schumacher’s intervention curves the garden earth into a gently domed roof and introduces large intermittent ceiling lights visible from above. With this unconventional contemporary transformation, the architecture of the museum becomes a kind of land art in itself.
Royal Ontario Museum
Another contemporary intervention by Daniel Libeskind – though not as universally acclaimed as the Jewish Museum – consists of a crystalline extrusion on the historical Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Constructed in the Neo-Romanesque style in the 19th century by Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, the structure expanded in 2007 to include Libeskind’s crystal, intended to investigate concepts of accessibility and the boundaries between the public and private.
In 1997, Frederick Fisher and Partners transformed a 19th-century Romanesque school building into a bustling contemporary art space. While keeping the historical style of the original building intact, the architects expanded the space, dramatized the facade, and constructed a distinct modern entryway. Though a clear intervention, the redesign was intentionally understated so as not to overshadow the art.
One of the oldest original buildings in this collection, the Gothic military castle Moritzburg of Germany was constructed in the 15th century. Following its partial destruction in the Thirty Years’ War, the castle remained a partial ruin until 2008, over a century after it became a museum. In their expansion, Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos design new exhibition floors attached to a new roof. With an angular top and glass windows extruding from the existing walls, the transition between the two styles is sudden and dramatic.
Another intervention by Libeskind, the Bundeswehr Military History Museum as seen today includes an enormous silver arrowhead protruding from an otherwise preserved 19th-century German armory. The intervention contrasts openness and rigidity, democracy and authoritarianism.
Housed in the former Bankside Power Station of the late 1800s, London’s Tate Modern preserves much of the original building but includes contemporary additions by Herzog and de Meuron. Initial development occurred in the late 1990s and expansion continued from 2012-2016. The most significant interventions included a two-story glass extension on the original roof and the construction of a new building on-site called the Switch House, a mix of the two styles on the main structure. Much of the original interiors were maintained and repurposed, with “Turbine Hall” becoming a new large-scale installation space and “The Tanks” being used for performances and smaller installations.