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Madrid's Newly Renovated Museums

When Queen Sofía of Spain inaugurates the spectacular, $100 million, 290,000-square-foot expansion of her namesake museum, the Reina Sofía, in Madrid next month, she will be throwing open the doors to a whole new era in the Spanish capital. The city is home to some of the great works of art—including pieces by El Greco, Raphael, Velázquez, Rubens, Goya, Picasso, and Miró—but has never created housing truly suitable for its treasures. Peerless collections like those of the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums had been shoehorned into historic buildings that, while emblems of classic Spanish architecture, were too small to accommodate real growth and offered none of the flexibility and flow—nor the services—necessary for a modern museum.

It's an old story. As far back as 1779, the Count de la Billarderie d'Angiviller, acting on behalf of Louis XVI of France, wrote to the French ambassador in Madrid: "I know there must be paintings by the great masters lost and forgotten in the attics of Spain, which the dealers have yet to explore. It occurred to me that one ought to be able to find inexpensive Titians, Velázquezes, Murillos, etc., which would enhance the king's magnificent collection at little cost." A generation later, Napoleon Bonaparte did not worry about the cost: he simply sent his agents to plunder Spanish churches, monasteries, and private collections, and brought much of the haul back to Paris. Later, after those treasures were returned to Spain following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the Prado Museum was created, in 1819.

What a difference 200 years can make. In a notable about-face, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía—Spain's preeminent museum of modern art—brought a French architect, Jean Nouvel, to the Spanish capital to create a showplace for the work of the country's contemporary artists. Appropriately, Nouvel's new building sits directly across a small plaza from the Estación de Atocha, the glorious steel-and-glass Beaux-Arts train station, for which another famous Frenchman, Gustave Eiffel, contributed designs. Last June, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza opened a five-story, 258,300-square-foot addition, and the eminent Prado is working overtime on its own large-scale expansion, set to open in 2006. In the words of Gabriele Finaldi, adjunct director of the Prado, "Madrid is finally confirming its position as one of the great cultural destinations of Europe."

The standout among all these developments is the Nouvel wing at the Reina Sofía. Describing the outspread triangular roof, strategically pierced with openings to allow in the sun and air, Nouvel said "the museum has unfolded a protecting and friendly wing, the color of roof tiles." It appears to soar above the new complex—an assemblage of glass, steel, and fiberglass-composite structures that houses special exhibition galleries, the museum's 350,000-volume library, two auditoriums, a mammoth bookshop, a restaurant, and an interior plaza that promises to become one of Madrid's most popular gathering spots.

Nouvel, who is known for his love of industrial materials and crisp geometry, has been deeply reverential of traditional Spanish architectural models, especially of the 18th-century landmark building (designed as a hospital by architect Francisco Sabatini) that has housed the museum since 1992 and will continue to showcase its permanent collection. From the street, the old and new edifices don't appear to be joined. The three buildings of the expansion and the wing-like roof that floats above them stand respectfully apart, but Nouvel has ingeniously employed gleaming stainless-steel panels on the side of the new bookshop—the structure nearest to the Sabatini building—to reflect the latter's sober granite ornamentation.

The complex of new pavilions literally opens up the Reina, as the museum is commonly known, to Madrid's lively urban scene. There are numerous entrances from the street, and outdoor walkways and terraces above the new plaza connect the upper stories of the buildings and provide spectacular views of the domes and spires of the city. Within, the polished underside of the roof reflects the bustling world outside, which is also visible through the vast windows of the library's reading room. (As at his Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Nouvel has devised a system of mechanized louvers, to protect the library, its books, and the works of art in the galleries from the bright Spanish sun.) A lustrous red module contains the two auditoriums—one with 500 seats, the other with 200—for performances and film screenings; the restaurant, under the direction of Sergi Arola of the city's Michelin-starred La Broche, will offer both seated and cafeteria-style lunches and be an elegant dinner destination, with additional seating on the plaza.

On June 21, the museum will open a retrospective devoted to Juan Gris, considered along with Picasso and Braque among the pioneers of Cubism. It will be the largest ever organized and will encompass some 250 paintings, drawings, and sculptures. And with the expansion, the Reina Sofía will be able to display more of its impressive collection, which includes must-see icons such as Picasso's Guernica as well as dozens of equally seminal works by Miró, Dalí, Chillida, and Barceló. The museum also organizes shows of contemporary art in the Palacio de Velázquez and the Palacio de Cristal, two 19th-century pavilions in the nearby Parque del Buen Retiro, so that visitors strolling in the park's vast gardens can look at something besides swans and specimen trees.

A comparably momentous debut takes place next year when the Prado inaugurates its new "campus," as the project has been described by its designer, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo. The $100 million "new Prado" will double the existing floor space and include a vast underground wing linking the museum's iconic brick-and-granite landmark building, designed by Juan de Villanueva in the late 18th century, with several neighboring structures. These include a new brick-and-sandstone edifice built by Moneo around the formerly crumbling cloister of a nearby church, Iglesia de los Jerónimos, making its restored arcades the focal point of a glorious interior courtyard. Nearby is the historic Casón del Buen Retiro, undergoing renovation. For the first time, the Prado will have galleries devoted to special exhibitions, a modern auditorium, and a proper restaurant and shop, as well as state-of-the-art conservation studios. The museum is refurbishing its operations, too. Once notorious for quixotic hours and frequent holiday closings, it now stays open until 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Advance tickets are available for special exhibitions; catalogues, wall labels, and audio guides are provided in English as well as Spanish, setting a standard for Spanish museums.

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