The Cleveland Art Museum

The Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the country’s largest and most important art institutions, was built in 1916 by local architects Hubbell & Benes as a grand Greek revival pavilion, situated at the head of a pastoral park and lagoon landscape designed by the Olmsted Brothers. However, subsequent additions – including a noteworthy education wing by modern architect Marcel Breuer – obscured the rational plan of the original structure with a disjointed, confusing warren of spaces. In 2001, Rafael Viñoly Architects won the commission to resolve these conditions with an expansion and renovation, creating a coherent organization of galleries that accommodates projected growth and unifies disparate architectural vocabularies into a singular composition.


The solution restores focus to the original 1916 building, conceiving of it as a “jewel” set within a continuous ring of expansion space that includes the renovated Breuer building. The other additions are demolished to make way for a new 34,000-square-foot indoor, sunlit piazza, topped by a gently curving canopy of glass and steel, around which the entire museum is newly organized. With indoor landscaping and daylight drawing visitors into the center of the plan, the column-free piazza is a large and welcoming public plaza, a gathering spot for museum-goers as well as an event space for large functions.

Phase I, completed in 2008, includes renovations to the 1916 and Breuer buildings, a new central utility plant built adjacent to the western end of the Breuer wing, and the construction of the museum’s new east wing for special exhibitions, art storage, conservation labs, and the Museum’s 18th to 20th century collections. Phase II, currently in progress, includes the demolition of the 1958 and 1984 additions, along with construction of the central piazza; the west wing; the four-story volume containing gallery, retail, and administrative space that rises between the piazza and the Breuer building; and basement space for storage, curatorial, workroom, and administrative support spaces. Museum Expansion New gallery wings to the east and west enclose the piazza and taper toward the 1916 building, where they culminate in fully transparent, glazed galleries and pedestrian bridges that permit unobstructed views of the sides of the historic pavilion. The new gallery wings’ exterior stone cladding alternates bands of granite with bands of marble that modulate the two very different aesthetics of the 1916 and Breuer buildings. In this manner, the distinctions between “modern” and “historic” are preserved, yet integrated into a cohesive whole.

A gently curving, column-free canopy of glass and steel will cover the piazza. Structurally, the canopy will be supported in two places: along its northern side, by a narrow, four-story volume of galleries and administrative spaces inserted between the Breuer building and the piazza; along its southern edge, a transfer beam concealed on the roof of the 1916 building transfers the canopy load to the existing structural columns, after a structural analysis determined that the columns could support more weight than that of the building alone. Structurally glazed vertical walls will allow both transparency and heighten the illusion that the roof structure is floating above the piazza. In addition to serving as the social heart of the complex, the piazza is designed to cover a vast underground storage space. Immediately adjacent to the piazza, set between it and the Breuer expansion, a four-story “bar building” of new construction houses the museum’s retail shop and the Lifelong Learning Center on the ground level, art galleries on the second floor, and staff offices and conference rooms on the third and fourth floors. The new west wing, immediately adjacent to the piazza, features a restaurant as well as private dining rooms on the ground floor and art galleries on the second floor connected to the east wing, north wing and 1916 building galleries by a continuous balcony that overlooks the piazza.


The 1916 building has been fully restored, and interior and exterior renovations use marble from the original quarry that were handpicked by the architect to match the color and grain of the existing stone. Gallery laylights, stone wainscots, portals, plaster moldings and trim, and bronze handrails demolished in earlier renovations were recreated using Hubbell & Benes’ drawings as guidelines. High performance triple pane insulated monumental windows were custom designed and manufactured to match the shapes and profiles of the original bronze windows. Mechanical and support spaces were converted into galleries, and new mechanical and support spaces were created by excavating within the perimeter of the 1916 building’s lower level. A completely new, high performance mechanical system was provided without disturbing the configuration of any existing walls, ceilings, laylights, or skylights. This new mechanical system utilizes original and recreated cast bronze supply and return grilles; it is controlled by a state of the art Building Management System, with galleries closely monitored for temperature and relative humidity by triple redundant sensors. Temperature and humidity sensors were also installed in critical interstitial spaces near and adjacent to galleries to ensure the correct environmental conditions are achieved and maintained. The Museum’s original “Garden Court” was redesigned to meet conservation quality conditions and is now a sky-lit painting gallery.


Rafael Viñoly Architects’ design highlights the original 1916 Greek revival museum as the symbolic object that is supported by the new expansion in which the 1971 late modern Breuer building is absorbed. The space created in between the two creates a large congregational public space that restores the importance of the north façade of the temple building and functions as the main orientation device to the visitor’s experience. A light canopy of glass and steel with a gently curved profile cantilevers from a new administrative wing without ever touching the original building. The new wing also provides a façade for the unfinished volume of the original Breuer design. The Arcadian vision of the temple on an idyllic garden remains unchanged in the approach from the south, while a new and more articulated contemporary structure diminishes the massiveness of the Breuer building through a series of terraces that merge into the landscape.


Sustainable design features were carefully integrated into the design of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the architect collaborated with the exhibition designer and the day-lighting consultant to devise gallery floor plans in terms of light sensitivity and organize areas of natural daylight with less light sensitive collections. Even in these areas with less sensitive objects, natural light can be either filtered or blacked out, and this concept was also applied to the conservation labs, which are all provided with abundant natural light, along with shading systems that can provide partial screening or total blackout.

With this project, the Cleveland Museum of Art becomes one of the first art museums to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest storm water pollution control standards. The architect and civil and landscape consultants incorporated bio-retention basins and drainage systems into the museum’s overall landscape design to filter and treat storm water before it is directed to the natural waterways and eventually to nearby Lake Erie.

The building program includes: interior piazza, art galleries, educational center, library and reading room, classrooms, auditorium, lecture/recital halls, retail, restaurant, kitchen, private dining room, entrance lobbies, administrative offices, conference rooms, workshops, loading dock and staging areas.


Project Type


Cleveland, 44106, United States

Related links


  • Rafael Viñoly Architects
  • Brad Feinknopf
  • Behnke Associates