With the expansion of its three biggest museums, the Spanish capital claims pride of place on the global art scene. Andrew Ferren takes a tour.
Javier Salas The exterior of Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

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.

Last summer, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza inaugurated a new building by BOPBAA, a Barcelona-based architectural cooperative, to house more than 200 works loaned by the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. The five-floor addition runs alongside the original structure containing the renowned collection of old masters and major 19th- and 20th-century works that belonged to her late husband, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and that landed in Spain in the early 1990's. The baroness's collection puts on view more paintings by non-Iberians, among them Hopper, O'Keeffe, Kirchner, and Kandinsky; Spain has had relatively little exposure to such art. The museum's exhibition program looks abroad as well: "Corot: Nature, Emotion, Souvenir" opens on June 7. To accommodate Spanish schedules, the museum remains open until midnight (yes, midnight) all summer, as does the terrace of Paradís, its see-and-be-seen restaurant. The Reina Sofía may have the biggest and best selection of art publications, but the shop at the Thyssen offers the best collection of design objects, especially luxury items like jewelry, as well as fans and sumptuous silk textiles based on works of Paul Gauguin, Franz Marc, and Piet Mondrian.

Sometimes, the old can be forgotten—almost. Next year, the Prado will unlock the last of those attics to which d'Angiviller referred. Because of limited space, the museum's collection of 19th-century Spanish canvases—unrivaled in quality and scope—has been out of view for more than a decade. When the Moneo expansion opens, these treasures will be the first to go on display. It's impressive: the museum that has lately made headlines with its groundbreaking series of exhibitions of foreign painters—Vermeer, Titian, Manet—will surely make even more when it once again digs into its own storerooms to display the richness of the art of Spain.

Not surprisingly, the Spanish government has thrown itself into promoting Madrid's Big Three; it has dubbed the culturally dense zone along the grand boulevard Paseo del Prado the Paseo del Arte (Art Walk). Joint admission tickets for the three museums are being made available. Plans call for the elimination of vehicular traffic and the creation of a pedestrian promenade to link the museums, allowing visitors to appreciate the spectacular Baroque sculptures adorning the Paseo's dozen or so fountains.

It seems as if Nouvel's soaring new wing really is one: Madrid's cultural life is finally taking off.

ANDREW FERREN lives in Madrid and writes for Artnews and the New York Times.


Hotel AC Palacio del Retiro Contemporary design meets a historic mansion; 51 rooms across from Retiro Park. 14 Calle Alfonso XII; 34/91-523-7460; www.ac-hotels.com; doubles from $408.

Hotel Urban Mod 96-room oasis with rooftop pool, steps from the Prado. 34 Carrera de San Jerónimo; 34/91-787-7770; www.derbyhotels.es; doubles from $300.


Paradís Mediterranean fare. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 8 Paseo del Prado; 34/91-429-2732; dinner for two $100.

Bokado Basque cuisine. Museo del Traje, 2 Avda. Juan de Herrera; 34/91-549-0041; lunch for two $50.


Bar Cock 16 Calle La Reina; 34/91-532-2826.

Chicote 12 Gran Vía; 34/91-532-6737.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

52 Santa Isabel; 34/91-467-5062; museo reinasofia.mcu.es.

Museo Nacional del Prado

Paseo del Prado; 34/91-330-2892; www.museoprado.es.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

8 Paseo del Prado; 34/91-369-0151; www.museothyssen.org.

Palacio de Cristal del Retiro

Parque del Buen Retiro; 34/91-574-6614.

Here are four more museums: new, reopened, or recently expanded or redone.

Museo del Traje

Costume and fashion museum with a collection of historic clothing that ranges from a rare 17th-century man's doublet to pieces by fashion designers like Fortuny and Balenciaga. 2 Avda. Juan de Herrera; 34/91-549-7150; museodeltraje.mcu.es.

Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas See the refurbished 18th- and 19th-century galleries and period rooms. 12 Calle Montalbán; 34/91-532-6499.

Museo Lázaro Galdiano

This lavish Gilded Age palace has paintings by Cranach, Velázquez, Murillo, and Constable, as well as stunning 7th- to 19th-century jewelry. 122 Calle Serrano; 34/91-561-6084; www.flg.es.

Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Houses some of Goya's most beloved works, including two self-portraits. 13 Calle Alcalá; 34/91-524-0864.

Madrid's new art scene is concentrated in two areas, the Lavapies and Chueca neighborhoods. Foundations organize some of the most intriguing shows of contemporary art, by artists from and beyond the Iberian Peninsula.

Galeriía Helga de Alvear

12 Doctor Fourquet; 34/91-468-0506; www.helgadealvear.net.

Galería Travesía Cuatro

4 Travesía de San Mateo; 34/91-310-0098; www.travesiacuatro.com.

Fundación Juan March

Offers exhibitions emphasizing European and American art of the 20th century. 77 Calle Castelló; 34/91-435-4240; www.march.es.

Círculo de Bellas Artes

Puts on some 1,000 events a year, from exhibitions and seminars to films and dance performances. 2 Calle Marqués de Casa Riera; 34/91-360-5400; www.circulodebellasartes.es.

Teatro Real The Magic Flute, July 5–18; Plaza de Oriente; 34/91-516-0660; www.teatro-real.com. A new production of Mozart's Singspiel features sets and costumes by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa.


Located beside the art gallery Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paradís serves Mediterranean seafood dishes and hosts themed culinary workshops about ingredients like local mushrooms, codfish, and calçots, a type of green onion. Dishes incorporate these seasonal foods as well as fish from the Ebro Delta, such as the cod baked in apple juice with balsamic chopped fruit. The neutral-toned dining room contains exposed brick, light tiled floors, and dark wood beams, while a lobby display reiterates the hallmarks of Mediterranean cuisine: bottled olive oils, baskets of mushrooms, and flavored vinegars. The restaurant also has an outdoor garden terrace with simple wooden furniture.

AC Palacio del Retiro

Carved from a 19th-century Edwardian-style manor home, this 50-room hotel is steps from the city’s major museums. The effect is of a baronial mansion, with maids in starchy uniforms, concierge staff at your beck and call, and soaring Tiffany windows above an original curving stairwell. A tiny spa has massage treatments and a hammam. Wherever possible, designers worked with the structure of the original home. The presidential suite, for example, retains the rich mahogany walls and books on the shelves that were in place when it was the manor’s library. Standard rooms have refinished parquet floors and carved plaster ceilings. Superior rooms overlook leafy Retiro Park.

Room to Book: Room 212, though a standard, is fit for royalty, with original mirror details.