How does a post-industrial city re-invent itself? It turns to a signature architect to provide itself with a new identity and self-belief. The brief called for the retention of the 1899 museum building (originally the Pony Express office). Co-op Himmelblau's solution engaged with it by slashing open the back of the old building and connecting it to the new one by means of a glazed bridge – and then parking a massively cantilevered structure atop the two.
Inside it all works brilliantly. As well as providing seamless connections between the elements of the museum, the atrium (the 'crystal'in Himmelblau-speak) can accommodate 1,800 guests for receptions. Because art galleries are no longer just about art, they have to engage with the city, and according to some they are part of the entertainment industry. The internal cladding is a delight: coated aluminium that folds with the crispness of origami. For all the geometry there is a sense of calm throughout – especially in the understated form-follows-function galleries. In the new building the architects have designed big flexible spaces for big modern works. Backstage there is none of the usual diminution in quality one comes to expect in arts buildings. In fact the storage area was designed so it could easily be converted into gallery space.
Architecture by no means has to be iconic, but if it is to work as an icon then it has to go for it – as this does. The architects have responded to the client's desire for a building that announces itself to and embraces the city in which it is situated, and all parties are to be congratulated on that.