Reina Sofía Museum extension: Respecting the past and celebrating the future

Jean Nouvel’s extension of the Reina Sofía Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid was conceived with the future in mind. ArcelorMittal structural steel helped bring this daring design to light with highly functional spaces to take the museum into the new millennium.

Detailed information

The growing collections and the necessity to live up to the expectations of its increasing number of visitors by offering additional high quality services were the main reasons for the extension project of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Jean Nouvel’s design offers a daring and expressive yet practical and respectful solution for the solid classic style of the existing building and the urban surroundings.

The existing building: From hospital to museum and the need to grow

The existing museum building goes back to the second half of the 18th century when architect Francisco Sabatini was commissioned to build a hospital. For different reasons, in the end only a third of the planned building was completed.

From this point on, it underwent several modifications and additions until the hospital was finally closed in 1965. Despite continuous calls for its demolition, the historic building survived and was restored in 1980. In April 1986, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía was opened, installed on the ground and first floors of the old hospital. The latest modifications to the Sabatini building were carried out in 1988 and included, amongst other elements, the construction of the three glass and steel elevator towers.

In addition to the permanent collection that took up the entire 2nd and 4th floors, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía has housed temporary exhibitions, and audio-visual and educational activities over the years, but requirements were constantly changing.

The increasing number of visitors (which doubled between 1994 and 2004) and the need for high quality spaces to host exhibitions, conferences, concerts, theatre performances, courses, children’s workshops, educational programmes, etc. resulted in an international architectural competition for the design of an extension project on the adjacent plot.

Architectural concept of the extension: Three volumes united by a great roof

The winning project, a design developed by the team of AJN Architectures Jean Nouvel, not only responded to the requirements set forth by the centre, but also offered the city new spaces lacking in this area: a public square between the new buildings and the south-eastern facade of the Sabatini building.

The proposal took on the challenge of increasing the value of the museum, the collections, the exhibits, and the urban surroundings, balancing the commitment with the past and the obligation to the present and the future of contemporary art.

The project basically responds to a strategy that differentiates between functions and spaces, but which are perceptively unified under a large roof that embraces, protectively, the buildings placed around the public square. The space materialises and dissolves in a byplay of surprising interstices.

The new spaces account for an increase of more than 60% of the surface of the old building (51 297 m²), which is now 84 048 m2.  Specifically, the area devoted to the permanent collection has increased more than 50%. Today, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is one of the largest museums of contemporary art in the world.

The extension was formed by three buildings that basically house temporary exhibitions, auditoriums, and the library. Within these, other requirements were covered: art work storage, a bookshop, offices, meeting rooms, a protocol room, and the cafeteria-restaurant.

The three new volumes are connected to the Sabatini building in a coherent way with the reorganisation of the accesses and the public and private museum visitor routes. In addition to the harmony of functions, a dialogue is established via the contrast between the two buildings: the massive, opaque appearance of the Sabatini building (the rotundity of a simple, octagonal volume) as opposed to the levity and dematerialisation of the new buildings where glass and reflective materials are the principal elements in this dissolution of the architectonic barriers and the recesses of the facades in upper levels which blur the contours. All of this is counterbalanced by the corbelled roof that defines the limits of the museum in its relationship with the city.

The buildings

Temporary exhibition building: The two new temporary exhibition rooms cover a total of 2 251 m2 with the capacity to exhibit large format works. They allow maximum flexibility and include modern technological and electronical installations.

The auditorium building: The building that houses two auditoriums (seating capacity for 500 and 200 people respectively) is located in between the streets of Ronda de Atocha and Argumosa. The protocol room is located on the highest level between enormous terraces. The cafeteria-restaurant, with direct access from the street, is at ground level.

The library & bookshop building: The great library of art and humanities is one of the most important ones in Europe with 100 reading places. It is equipped with the latest technological multimedia library systems and a reserve storage space of up to 250 000 volumes. The bookshop, specialising in art from the 20th and 21st centuries and humanities, is also located in this building. The southeast facade reflects the Sabatini building through a reflective surface that returns the image to the Plaza de Carlos V. Above the area occupied by the library and offices, there are large terraces flanked by immense windows and gaps of zenithal illumination. 

Functional organisation: The accesses from inside the complex differ depending on their use. Each building ,and within these each function, has its own access. Likewise, the library, the auditorium, and the cafeteria-restaurant may be entered directly from outside the museum.
Visitors can go directly from the Sabatini building to the new spaces. To make this possible, the south-eastern facade wall of the old hospital was perforated and this opening was connected to the vertical communication nucleus of the new temporary exhibition building.

Innovative & traditional material go hand in hand

The latest techniques and materials in the construction field were used for the new buildings. Worth mentioning are fibreglass and polyester that coat the auditorium building both on the outside and on the inside giving it its characteristic reddish colour.

Well-known materials were used, but with innovative designs such as the extruded aluminium protection sheets for the facades, the creation of an immense lamp of ex profeso moulded glass die for the ceiling of the library at the Real Fábrica de Vidrio de la Granja (Royal Glass Factory) in la Granja, Segovia, Spain, or the alucore- and zinc-coated aerodynamic roof.

Two of the buildings - the library and the temporary exhibition building - were built using rolled steel sections. Beams and columns were made with 5 cm thick sheets cut with laser and welded in the workshops of the company Horta and then moved to the site in 12, 16, and 22 metre lengths.

The building that houses the auditorium was built using the post-tensioned concrete system. Two large, symmetrically positioned ribs bear the loads of the auditoriums and the protocol room. These ribs are joined by reinforced concrete beams that form the stalls in both auditoriums.

The great roof, of almost 8000 m², spans six metres of the terraces where the buildings conclude and is supported by a slender metallic column covering the entire plot and the pavements around it. The exceptional point of this element lies in the extraordinary projections that reach a span of up to 36 m. For this, a structure of metallic beams with solid web 3.4 m high in the central area were made. This thickness decreases to reach 5 cm at the outer perimeter.

Project information

  • Madrid
  • Spain
  • Architect:
    Jean Nouvel, Architect and Alberto Medem, Architect, Project Manager
  • 2005
  • Client:
    Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
  • Engineering Firm:
    Esteyco, JG y asociados, Higini Arau
  • Contractor:
  • Photographers:
    Joaquim Cortés, José Luis Municio, Ana Müller