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Whether it’s the art world or the car world, maximizing space—In a fun and functional way—Is design’s latest challenge

By Robin Cherry

When some of the country’s finest art museums outgrew their original spaces, their directors brought in some of the world’s best “starchitects” to create contemporary additions that both honor the past and look to the future. Like the Chevrolet Spark, these works of ingenuity marry whimsical flights of imagination and state-of-the-art engineering. The end result? Cutting-edge design that maximizes space in exciting new ways—and finds the fun in functionality.

Sir David Chipperfield’s eagerly-awaited glass-and-concrete expansion for the St. Louis Art Museum opens in June. The British architect was awarded the prestigious Royal Gold Architecture Prize in 2010 for his hip, modern buildings. Keeping it local, Chipperfield incorporated Missouri river stone into the building’s façade. So rather then compete with the original 1904 limestone and brick exterior, the new structure compliments it. A Grand Stair(case) links the two distinct buildings. Thanks to the design’s open plan, natural daylight streams into the galleries and public spaces through innovative ceilings with sunken panels, which also keep the galleries quiet. The expansion will be LEED Registered too, meaning it has met the standards for environmentally-sustainable construction.

The original Cleveland Museum of Art, an imposing Neoclassical pavilion made of white Georgian marble, was designed in 1916 by two local architects. Subsequent additions—including a wing with a two-toned granite facade by famed designer Marcel Breuer—obscured the original structure and created a bit of an architectural muddle. Rafael Viñoly Architects’ new design reimagines the building, which reopened last year, as a jewel set within a ring of exhibition space. A gracefully curving glass roof tops a column-free piazza, seeming to float above the atrium. Outside, granite and marble stripes link the three buildings.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is housed in a massive French-style building that opened in 1933. In 2007, Steven Holl Architects designed the critically- and popularly-acclaimed Bloch Building addition, a series of five free-standing glass structures that seem to grow straight out of the ground. The alternately translucent and see-through huts create a fanciful landscape as they spill down the lawn of the Kansas City Sculpture Park. During the day, light floods into the new galleries. At night, the structures are lit from within and decorate the landscape like Japanese lanterns, fitting in beautifully with the sculpture garden dedicated to the work of Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Sacramento’s Crocker Museum of Art was originally situated in the family’s 1870 Victorian Italianate mansion. It was the first building in the United States to be constructed as an art museum. When it ran out of room, the board hired Gwathmey-Siegel to triple its space. While the massive 125,000-square-foot Teel Family Pavillion that opened in 2010 is obviously modern (thanks to the use of zinc and aluminum), it echoes the original grey-and-white color scheme. Inside, a 22-foot-tall by 105-foot-long glass wall beautifully frames the historic mansion’s ornate western façade.

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Robin Cherry is a Hudson Valley-based travel, food and pop culture writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Afar, Islands and many other publications. She blogs at Garlic Escapes and is writing a book on the history of garlic that will be published in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @garlicescapes