Museum Jeronimo Cloister | History Dissertations

A “Cube” of light diffuses through the new extension of the Prado Museum in the Spanish capital.


For many years the Prado was almost a secret in plain sight. Years of Spanish segregation and abandon under General Franco, left a museum in frayed conditions. While every other museum inaugurated new buildings by celebrity architects, and exhibitions were judged through the amounts of visitors passing through their doors annually rather than the quality of it; the Prado, stuck to what best it knew Velazquez, Goya, Titian and Tintoretto in rooms of increasingly worn grandeur, however what really mattered was the painting not the space. However that was then. “Before, museums were the preserve of the few, but now they’re massively attended. We had to change to match that.” Miguel Zugaza The Prado is now marking the termination of a significant stage in the creation of the new Museo del Prado campus that involves the integration of various adjacent buildings into the Prado, including the Cason and the Salon ode Rainos, and the last remains of the Buen Retiro Palace. The museo del prado has concluded the most important extension to its building in its 200 years of history. The project consists of the design of new exhibition galleries and the restoration of the old cloister of the Jeronimos. When completed, the Prado will augment the already rich facilities to be found in one of the most important art and cultural districts in the world known as the Paseo del Prado in the Spanish capital Madrid. Intervened and designed by Rafael Moneo. Following two architectural competitions, Moneo’s project was chosen for the extension in 1998 the works, begun in February 2002 under the management of the Ministry of Culture. However, cost more than four times its initial budget. The final price tag was around 153 million euros. Before, whenever a new exhibition went up, some of the permanent collection had to be dismounted. Galleries became storage rooms for lack of real deposit space. Visitors were welcomed through side doors not designed to handle crowds, because there was no well-designed main entrance.

History Behind The Saint Jeronimo Cloister

The most significant difficulty the architect Rafael Moneo faced, hence the significant increase in costs, was led by restoration of the Cloister. The monastery of San Jerónimo el Real had two cloisters. The first and older of the two was destroyed between 1855 and 1856, while the second was a Renaissance cloister built in the 16th century for religious and spiritual use. The latter was replaced about a century after its construction by a Baroque cloister designed by Fray Lorenzo de San Nicolás. This is the cloister that has survived to the present day and is popularly known as the Cloister of the Jerónimos. As with the rest of the monastery, Fray Lorenzo’s cloister endured considerable sufferings during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of numerous changes of ownership, use, projects and alterations. As a result, barely the skeleton was left. Fortunately, the finest and most interesting part still had the potential to be rescued. Following the completion of the restoration of the almost 3,000 blocks and the start of work on the extension project; Moneo finessed the preservation issue by burrowing below ground for the temporary exhibition galleries, so that the now restored Cloister sits on top, in its original position. It was enclosed within a concrete skin in order to be integrated into the new building, and now plays a significant role in the extension. The modification of the Cloister as part of the expansion has allowed this structure – understood as a “gallery that surrounds the main courtyard of a Church of Monastery” – to retain its particular character, given that it can once again be seen as an interior architectural element within a building. The Cloister’s elemental character has not been modified; on the contrary, it has regained the architectural meaning that it had lacked since the demolition of the former monastery of which it originally formed a part. It is enfolded below a skylight and integrated as a “kind of giant ready made sculpture into the museum, which silences critics who argue that the cloister needed saving, even if the solution somewhat sterilizes the site.” The restoration team set up a computerized database to carefully record the work carried out on each of the stone blocks as well as the restoration treatments applied to each of them. Each of the dismantled and numbered blocks were labeled on the database with an exact description (architrave, cornice, coat-of-arms, etc) as well as its weight, measurements, location and storage, physical condition, treatment and photography (initial and final state). The definitive restoration started with the application of a treatment to remove areas of biological deterioration, applied to all the visible sides of the original blocks as a preventative method. The parts with high salt content were desalinated while the surfaces were cleaned with easily controllable, non-invasive methods that did not result in damage or any loss of surface material. Cracked stones that were not repaired during the consolidation phase as they were out of line, as well as those that needed reinforcing, were pulled together with fibre-glass rods and epoxy resin, ensuring that future colour change would not take place. In addition to the preliminary study mentioned above, the Cloister was submitted to a procedure of preparatory consolidation prior to being dismantled and subsequently restored and reinstalled. This work was carried out under the direction of two experts from the Gerencia de Infrastructuras of the Ministry of Culture and a restorer from the Instituto de Patrimonio Histórico Español (IPHE). The final report on this work included a study of the stability and possible consolidation of the arcading with a diagram of damage, work carried out and risks. The various studies carried out at this point revealed the serious deterioration not just of the stone but also of the Cloister’s structure, with the consequent risk of collapse. Once the preparatory consolidation work had been carried out in order to ensure that the dismantling could be undertaken without any risk to the structure, and following the photographic study, restoration started on the stone elements of the Cloister under the direction of four experts from the Ministry of Culture (Gerencia de Infrastructuras and the IPHE). After the dismantling of the 2,820 stones was completed and they were moved to the studios in Alcalá de Henares where the restoration work was to be carried out, each piece was documented and given an identifying code and number. A sketch of each of the lines of masonry was made in order to be able to subsequently reassemble them and photographs taken of their length and of sides of the stonework not previously visible. “conservar hasta donde fuera posible el carácter de lo que fue el antiguo Museo.”

History of Extensions

Since its creation in 1819, the Museo del Prado grew in a systematic but modest way, resulting in an ongoing need for a large-scale extension project of the type that other historic museums of its stature had undertaken in the last decades of the 20th century: the National Gallery of Washington between 1971 and 1978; the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1970 and 1990; the National Gallery of London between 1985 and 1991; and the Musée du Louvre in two phases between 1989 and 1993. Apart from differences relating to size and requirements, these extensions all shared the aim of responding for the first time to the contemporary transformation of these great historical museums into ever more visited and dynamic cultural centers. In the case of the Museo del Prado, no more options were left with regard to gaining more space in the Villanueva building. In the 1980s different ideas were therefore proposed. In the early 1990s, and as a response to varying requirements, it was generally felt that the Prado should extend by recuperating the last surviving remains of the Buen Retiro Palace (the Casón and Salón de Reinos, the latter the home of the Museo del Ejército [Army Museum]) and possibly the old Cloister of the Jerónimos. This idea focused on the concept of emphasizing the Museum’s historical roots. “El edificio trata de rescatar o recuperar su historia, el guión que da pie a su vida” In accord with this proposal, in June 1994 the Museum’s Royal Board of Trustees approved a “Requirement Plan for the Museo del Prado” in which the need to increase its floor space was pointed out. The report was presented to the Council of Ministers by the then Minister of Culture, Carmen Alborch, and agreed with the principal political parties in a unique Parliamentary Pact. Consequently, the first architectural competition was announced in March 1995. This competition clearly stated that proposals should include the incorporation of the above-mentioned buildings into the Villanueva building. Despite the fact that more than 700 architects entered, however out of this number only ten projects made it to the second round, for it all then in September 1995 to be collectively announced invalid, although two entries were awarded second prizes. In 1997, the Museum’s Royal Board of Trustees approved a report which set out a “Museological Plan” that chose the idea of an expansion onto adjacent areas, proposing that the Prado’s expansion should take place over nearby and if possible neighboring buildings. This encouraged the idea of including the Cloister of the Jerónimos as well as the Casón and Salón de Reinos. As a result of this report, presented by the then Minister of Culture, Esperanza Aguirre, to the Council of Ministers and authorized by that body, the Ministry reached an agreement with the Archbishopric of Madrid under which the Cloister could become available within the area of the Museum’s expansion project. Before the announcement that it would take over the site, the Madrilènes had no say nor did they show interest, once it became public, neighbors foreseeing years of noisy construction, declared the expansion plan a blasphemy. Set out in an Agreement signed in July 1998 by the Ministry of Culture and the Archdiocese of Madrid, this decision allowed for the organization of a new architectural competition, whose guidelines conformed to the report approved by the Museum’s Royal Board of Trustees and the agreement with the Church. On this occasion, the competition was by invitation and was limited to the ten finalists from the previous one. In 1998 Rafael Moneo’s project, entitled BUEN RETIRO, was collectively selected, although with some modifications suggested by the jury, that involved collaboration of representatives of the Museum, the Government, the Regional Government of Madrid, the City Council and the Church. Rafael Moneo’s project was approved by the Board of Trustees on 15 March 2000 and jointly and definitively approved by the competition jury one week later, on 21 March 2000.

The Walk Through The Extension

Moneo’s successful design opted to require the previously closed Velazquez entrance on the Paseo del Prado side, in order to allow the passage from this door directly to the Cloister. In fact, the way through from the ‘Puerta’ de Velazquez to the cloister of Los Jeronimos has pieced together a series of interesting architectural arrangements aimed at overcoming the specific problems raised by the programme. The Prado now is designed via a transversal axis that allows passage and communication between the entrance on the Paseo del Prado and the cloister of Los Jeronimos. With the addition of the new wing, the Villanueva building will now permanently exhibit the permanent Prado collections. Whereas the subsidiary activities, essential for the day-to-day organisation of the museum, which were felt to occupy too much space in the old building, will now, be housed around the transversal axis running from the ‘Puerta’ to the cloister. These areas include a foyer and all the services required for temporary exhibition galleries, studies and conservation rooms and so forth. The ground floor apsidal hall- in an attempt to imitate Villanueva’s proposed basilica; has been used as an junction between both axes and converts this area into one by coinciding and merging activities between the present day Prado museum and the newly constructed wing. The elimination of the existing Assembly room and the subsequent recovery of the apsidal hall was perhaps one of the most challenging tasks for the architect. The perimeter and the three wide voids that characterise the Basilica hall were kept intact as niches in the original Villanueva building. From this red Pompeian stucco entrance hall the visitor really feels positioned at the heart of the building due to the openings of the basilica hall looking out onto the ground floor galleries, and the windows projecting views to the outside patio and the surrounding buildings right up to the San Jeronimo Church. Floor-to-ceiling glass panelled galleries like walkways, set alongside the open patio space, opening on either side of the apse, lead the visitors into a trapezoidal shaped area. The longer sides align themselves towards the back of the museum and the Calle Ruiz de Alarcon, whereas, the shorter sides used as additional entrances, from the North and the South, the North access set close the Puerta de Goya and the South facing access set close to the Puerta de Murillo and the Botanical gardens. This forms and oblique area which distorts the perspective view and reflects the respective alignments of the san Jeronimos and the Paseo del Prado as well as the open patio from which the red Pompeian apse emerges which the visitor can clearly see through a façade of floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Started by Villanueva, later strengthened by Pascual y Colminar and soon after altered by Jareno and Saavedra, the apsidal hall, dominates the scene from the vestibule area, and reflects the whole style of the museum. The oblique area which strives to avoid a conventional perspective has a slight slope as a result of its transitional role between the different levels of the entrances and this visual instability accentuates its purpose as a foyer and service area. The whole idea is to leave the original Villanueva totally uncluttered from all other services except gallery space. This generous open transitional area, accommodates an open foyer, lockers, cloakrooms, toilets etc…as well as a cafeteria/restaurant and a bookshop. The café and bookshop are extremely small in regards to the proportion of the vestibule and museum, evidently this states what the museums priorities are; allowing the visitor to wander around with greater freedom. The architect’s goal of the expansion is achieved notably and clear, it conveys what a museum is supposed to do: show its collection better. The plan is so conservative that it is radical. “We chose him because, in addition to being a great Spanish architect, he is humble,” says Zugaza. “He knew how to work harmoniously with the neoclassical architecture of the original.” “The new wing was never intended to bear the bold signature of a Pei pyramid or a Gehry curve; it manages instead to be quietly beautiful.” Times Lisa Abend From the large vestibule, the visitor is lead on to an auditorium and temporary exhibition galleries and provides a fluid a vertical access via stairs, escalators and lifts, to the building constructed around the cloister. The level of the Prado museum is kept below ground level and the geometry of the perimeter of the Cloister is predetermines the design of the new building. Furthermore, we must note that the dimensions of the temporary exhibition galleries are determined by the cloister and both reflect the prevailing, though, diverse, structural conditions. Hence, while in one of the galleries the four columns are arranged to sustain and withheld the weight of the floor slabs, in the other they are set further apart and give rise to an opening/void which brings natural light down from the skylight roof top of the cloister. Therefore, the lantern should not only be seen as an “object” but as a natural and indispensable structural element. The visitor will continue his/her journey through this transversal axis which starts from the ground floor apse and leads on to the cloister, via a first flight of escalators that takes the visitor up to the level of Calle Ruiz de Alarcon and the entrance door to the new building. Here the form and the arrangement of the temporary exhibition galleries are yet again dictated by the shape of the cloister and where the lantern plays an important structural role. A further temporary exhibition gallery set below the platform designed at the level of los Jeronimos and a loading and unloading area in the Calle Casado del Alisal complete this floor. Continuing the ascent in the new building the visitor approaches a mezzanine level accommodating a studio. They will then reach the end of their after being take up the last set of escalators to one of the corners of the Cloister that serves also as the main entrance to it, finally they reach their destination: the Cloister. It is important to stress that the Cloister of San Jeronimo does not purely serve as a reference point to all the circulation movements nor is it solemnly an object but more importantly serves as a structure, framework and support for the new building. The cloister should be dealt and seen as a light that illuminates all of the extension; as a work of art incorporating the museums collections; as an architectural element that embodies and justifies all that is built around it. The cloister is all of this at the same time however, let us not forget that it can also be conveyed and interpreted as a reference to the past a testimony of that built in the time of Philip IV, the Patron of Velasquez, also, recalling the importance of the monarchs of the House of Austria in Spanish history. A series of spaces have been arranged around the cloister for use as studios, workshops and for restoration purposes of works of art, together with their corresponding laboratories and services. All these spaces are open towards the cloister using large glazed windows: allowing, natural light to filter from the cloister’s skylight to these spaces yet creates a strong visual “interaction” between the public and private and the “public & public” at distinct levels. Moneo’s use of literal transparency is evident here. It allows the public realm to interact even though only at a visual level, the activities behind the organization of a museum. The idea that, a visitor coming to the Prado can relate both with the circulation and movement of the alike-visitors and that of the people working in it, really brings everything into context. The latter: “public & public” at distinct levels, is created via the void of the lantern. At cloister level, not only will light propagate to the other levels, however, there will also be a relation between visitors at different levels in distinct spaces, experiencing diverse spatial movement, atmosphere and light conditions. Having dealt with the transversal axis leading from the main entrance on the Paseo del Prado leading to the cloister, and how this thought through design justifies the architecture of the new building, nevertheless mentioning how this transit affects the urban environment or the impact that these new constructions will have in the area is vital. The fact that the extension of the Museum is situated in the area of the Jeronimos has allowed the architect to act on what may be considered and portrayed as the weak side of the museum, the rear of the building, this having been clear from the start due to the result of the successive extensions during the years. This new extension has completely transformed this eastern side at the “rear” of the museum. The imprecise and uncertain intersection produced between the bank raised by the Calle Ruiz de Alarcon and the additional volumes added to the museum through the years, has been masked by a planted-out platform of box hedges which recall the 18th century gardens, which covers the oblique-shaped foyer area. Interestingly, the architect’s initial intention was to create a transparent roof using steel and glass, however due to both structural and mal interpretational problems. In an interview he continues by saying: “How are we going to consider this glazed roof that has not got the safety characteristics of the museum and that looks similar to a supermarket, a bus station or a shopping mall? The answer was placing the garden as the building roof’s top” The sloping area, so important to the relationship between the old and the new building, is hardly understood from the outside. In fact the visitor is left perplexed, as he/she approaches the new building, what happens to be the foyer area, the trapezoidal area, from the outside looks like an urban irregularity, with a raised/terrace platform supporting a gardened area. It undeniably does not look like a building. The garden set above this terrace may be considered a transitional level between the back of the Villanueva building and the buildings set around the cloister, and a reunion between the museum and the slope running down from the park of the Buen Retiro to the Paseo del Prado, in the same manner of the original Academy building built by Villanueva. As a juxtaposition the emblematic access to the museum via la Puerta de Cristina Iglesias, situated on the Calle Ruiz Alarcon, integrated in the plain, clear pressed brick façade, within a portal of double height, fluted columns crowned by a Macael marble lintel is perhaps the most outstanding feature. Yet, this entrance is used for ceremonial occasions only, establishing an alternative, independent and complementary route to the ones drawn by the earlier mentioned entrances. The new building and the gardened terrace serve to consolidate the urban profile of both the Casasdo de Alisal and Ruiz de Alarcon streets. The gardened public area covering the foyer ensures that the entire museum is now surrounded b a green blanket and may be considered as a nexus between this and the not too distant Botanical Gardens: creating from a distance a continuous homogenous green carpet. The complex geometry of the terrace has been divided into avenues or parterres set in stone boxes, and is arranged as such that we are invariably lead to the Villanueva apse, which nevertheless, logically, impossible to reach from here, returns the visitor to the very cornerstone of this project and all of those achieved throughout the history of the Prado museum.


The protection and restoration of our architectural heritage is a field where glass, as a construction material, has often been called upon to play an important role. Glass constructions, glass facades, the use of glass in general, can ‘protect’ and ‘harmonise’ monuments and define their new historic phase: the ‘modern’. However, future in glass constructions can also be seen as working with the past: in working with old buildings trying to find forms and ways to keep the authenticity of the historic materials and prove the continuity of human history. The use of glass in construction, allows a building to feel ageless and neutral, in fact the two most important aspects of glass are the following: Reversibility of glass constructions, which refers not only to the level of construction but also to a conceptual level, as transparency offers way to simultaneous seeing. Transference of historic and time scale, as use of glass construction/glass facades/, explicitly state the time elapsed between the historic and contemporary, without confusion regarding time or meaning. Moneo does the latter more literally, his creative work, allows natural light to filter through both sides of the vestibule that connects the old and the new extension, as well as the through the top in the new spaces allocated as temporary exhibition spaces, arranged and distributed in three levels surrounding the cloister. To create different light effects, and spatial atmosphere, the architect, designed a glass lantern, substantially a “cube of light”, that runs through the three different levels, starting in the cloister. In this way natural light is distributed via the skylight placed on the ceiling of the cloister, down to the ground floor. The use of glazing is a very recurrent material, a recognisable signature of Moneo. In fact, glazing in the extension plays a major role; the architect uses natural light penetrating and diffusing through it, in a very imaginative way, creating landscapes of natural light. In an article in the Journal of Architectural Education on Transparency it suggests and states that: “The modern fascination with making interior and exterior space continuous is yet another manifestation of transparency.” There is a clear evidence of this in Moneo’s extension. As the visitor comes through the floor to ceiling windows walkways, the visitor encounters the change from old to new, the “transportation” of one self from the red Pompeian vestibule to the new foyer of the extension, stopping at a pivotal point: the patio, here the visitors feels neither inside or outside. Moreover, a large glazed opening situated in the most south flank of the extension allows light to filter in at most hours of the day. It is allocated at a higher level both to the patio and the sloped Calle Ruiz Alarcon, and at the north flank of the extension and looking across, the visitor only encounters a green landscape and trees coming from the adjacent Botanical Gardens, it strongly suggests that Moneo’s intention was to continue this “landscape” not only at the exterior but also creating the same atmosphere inside the building. We must also note and stress the emphasis Moneo sets on adhering to the historical context. His use of materials and his design clearly recall that of Villanueva’s building. This in a way addresses another from of transparency, his transparency of thought while designing the museum but also underlines his sensitivity and respect in regards to the original building of Villanueva and the unique buildings adjoining it. In an interview Moneo states that: “I would have liked to prolong the life of the Prado or the life of the architecture of Villanueva executing it in the most…I was going to say useful…the most judicious way..” moreover continues by affirming that “good architecture should protect itself.” Moneo in his interview continues unfolding the various interventions the Prado museum had undergone however, always keeping and maintaining its integrity and identity and felt that he had to do the same, however enhancing the building with the topography, “not the natural topography, but a new topography that created and constructed the city. We have forgotten that the back of the Prado was an unresolved site. The new design establishes a much more integral relationship between the adjacent streets and the building; it can now be understood either way.” One of the clear characteristics of the building is Moneo’s use of old craftsmanship techniques in his stone work, bronze, wood and stucco, and most importantly brick the most dominant material at its exterior. This passage, the concluding question in the interview the interviewee asks why his choice of materials, Moneo’s response was a clear one, a thought one, a transparent one: “Brick is a material that has always been related to craftsmanship, and craftsmanship has always been related to architecture. The XX century has erased a lot of the traditional craftsmanship and buried many of the attributes of vernacular architecture. In this sense, brick is more and more anomalous and odd to the current architecture issues, which are more focused on the industrial processes. I did use bricks when working for Bankinter, in Atocha train station and in the Prado museum, but not because I like this material. I come from a town of pottery and potters and bricks, but it is mostly this respect towards the environment the reason to employ brick. And now that we are talking about the Prado, I remember someone from the council who asked/wondered, in relation to the brick cube we started from, why more modern materials were not used. I believe that next to the Jeronimos church, glazing would have been too shiny, and the use of stone extremely arrogant.”

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