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Basel’s Beyeler Builds Out for the Future

“The museum in the 21st century is also for people, not just for objects: If you extend, you also need to extend those kinds of spaces,” said Sam Keller, the Beyeler’s director. At the same time, “a museum shouldn’t give up what it is and has been: a safe place for objects which are important to keep for the future, and an ideal place to display art.”


The current Fondation Beyeler building, designed by Renzo Piano.

Mark Niedermann

As the architect of the new Beyeler, Mr. Zumthor (who was picked from a pool of 11 international architecture firms) could not be more different from Mr. Piano. Somewhat reclusive, he is known for producing austere, meditative buildings and often works with concrete.

The Zumthor extension will have three parts: a main building for art display, with three floors and windows overlooking the park; a small side building for offices; and a multipurpose garden pavilion that’s an open-access public space by day and by night can be turned into an auditorium, dining hall, concert hall or event site.

The budget for the extension is roughly 100 million Swiss francs ($104 million). Half of that will cover land and construction expenses, and the other half — unusually — will pay for operational and maintenance costs in the first 10 to 15 years.

“Many museums with extensions create problems for themselves: They put a lot of money in bricks and mortar, and then don’t have money for the program anymore,” said Mr. Keller, who previously ran Art Basel. “We want to avoid that.”

The extra 1,500 square meters of exhibition space will be used mostly to show works in the permanent collection or works on long-term loan, whose number is growing. The Beyeler has long-term loans from the Louise Bourgeois estate and the Calder Foundation, for example, and has received a gift of works from the Renard collection of mostly postwar European art.


A rendering of the Beyelor museum’s extension, which will have education, event and display spaces. The project’s architect, Peter Zumthor, said the challenge is “to keep a good balance between events and art.”

Courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

Mr. Zumthor said it was important to make a dedicated spot for the museum’s parallel activities. “We all know that the danger of museums nowadays is that they become event places, and art goes into the background,” he said. “This is the challenge today for any museum: to keep a good balance between events and art.”

Mr. Zumthor said he had been asked by Mr. Beyeler, shortly before his death, “whether I would do something for him in the back” of the Beyeler. The architect added that he was personally fond of the museum, because it was “friendly to the people — not a castle.”

Mr. Keller said Mr. Zumthor was a good fit. He said the architect knows the town, the museum and its surroundings very well; he understands and cares about art, and he has a very close relationship to nature.

“Zumthor has this archaic way of looking at architecture, but in a very contemporary way: his buildings are very durable,” Mr. Keller said. “They are a little out of time and fashion, and we liked that.”

Theodora Vischer, senior curator at the Beyeler, said she was pleased that Mr. Zumthor had decided to design three smaller buildings and not one giant one.

“The Beyeler is not a big building at the moment, and it will not become huge,” she said. “The new program will be an enlargement of the existing. It will not be a doubling of it.”

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