The original building of the Chopo Museum is a product of late 19th century technology. The structure was manufactured just before the turn of the century in Oberhausen, Germany, as a pavilion for an exhibition on industry and art in Düsseldorf.
After the exhibition, the structure was imported by a Mexican company and reassembled in the neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera in Mexico City between 1903 and 1905. The residents of this once upscale district dubbed the building the “Crystal Palace” for its resemblance to Sir Joseph Paxton’s building for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
The German structure was long used as a museum of natural history but was abandoned in the 1960s. Since then, it has been appropriated as a space for performing arts, installations, concerts, events, and film shoots, and now, administered by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, it is at the center of one of the liveliest art scenes in the city.
While the open, pavilion like structure lent itself well to various uses, the museum proposed expansion and improvement, particularly of the environmental controls, in order to meet international museum standards. It was impossible to satisfy these objectives within the existing structure; thus, the expansion is an inserted volume with suitable mechanical systems. The original pavilion is left untouched, serving as a shell around this added volume and maintaining an almost documentary status as a vital work in the institution’s collection.
The dialogue between new and old ranges from self sufficiency to mutual dependence. The structure of the insertion is entirely autonomous, producing a series of ramped gallery spaces that fill the old building yet barely seem to touch the ground.
The arched cast iron trusses of the nineteenth-century pavilion are subtly reinterpreted in the glass facades and truss system of the bridges and ramps in the new volume. The upper levels of the ramps offer a view up to the iron lattices and wooden beams of the soaring ceiling of the original building and down to the nested gallery spaces. The expansion also includes auditoriums in a below-grade excavation and a library near the roof.
From the outside of the museum, the only indication of this “invasion,” which in fact doubles the building’s area, is a small portion of the insertion. This fragment extends past the outer wall of the pavilion as a quiet reminder of its metamorphosis. In the end, the original building remains intact yet is wholly altered by its new occupant.