No pyramids please, we're Spanish

The winner of the contest to expand Madrid's great Prado will finally be announced this month. Elizabeth Nash finds encouraging signs of chaos
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Madrid's Prado Museum recently acquired a fine little masterpiece by Francisco de Goya that it had coveted for years. The painting shows a figure stumbling through darkness, shrouded by a sheet, while above his head frolic a clutch of horrible ghouls in obscene and malevolent disarray.

The Witches' Flight is one of a series in which the artist explores his vision of nightmares, ignorance and witchcraft, and it provides a cruelly faithful image of the chaos that has for years tormented the home of one of the world's finest art collections.

There are signs, however, that this 213-year-old museum, the Spanish capital's top tourist attraction, might at last be awakening from its nightmare in time to greet the new millennium. Chaos persists, but at least it now signals recovery, rather than decadence and drift.

Starved of resources in the 1960s and 1970s, paralysed in the 1980s and early 1990s by political infighting and bureaucratic bungling, the Prado had been beset by gaffes and scandals that made it an object of despair and ridicule. The depths were plumbed in 1993 when the old tiled roof leaked rainwater into the room containing Velzquez's masterworks, including Las Meninas, the jewel of the entire collection.

That terrible moment precipitated another phase of misery: Juan de Villanueva's classical pile was whipped into an orgy of repair work that continues in full spate. Visitors pick their way round scaffolding, stop their ears to drilling so loud it makes the paintings tremble, pee in rickety cubicles, eat in stuffy, crepuscular gloom, and ask in vain where shifting masterworks are hung this week.

The punters aren't put off in the least. Increasing numbers pour through the doors: 280,000 in the peak month of April this year, up to 140,000 a month in the traditionally quiet summer season, which the authorities admit coincided this year with building works at their most shambolic.

Villanueva's 1785 building lounges along the handsomest boulevard in Madrid, and contains the finest collection of Goya, Velzquez, El Greco and Rubens in the world. It is bursting at the seams: of its 7,000 paintings, only 2,500 are on view. The aim is to make room for at least 500 more - another kilometre of art.

Last month, 10 architects submitted plans for the last lap of much-postponed expansion to a committee of politicians, churchmen and museum chiefs. A decision is promised by 15 November and work should start next year.

Don't expect surprises. Not for the Prado any radical statements comparable to the Louvre's glass pyramid or the V&A's "crushed boxes". When Spain's arts minister handed out instructions for the latest architectural contest he warned, "the object is not to make pyramids or obelisks or frivolities, thank God."

The Prado's director, Fernando Checa, admits that the expansion will be "prudent" rather than adventurous. "It must resolve the problems of the site, which is of great historic and artistic value, meet today's needs, and be beautiful. The main thing is to satisfy our clients, the visitors. The V&A extension is daring, deliberately clashing with the original building, but the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing respects its surroundings. We could adopt the same logic."

World-class architects including Sir Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki and Rafael Moneo have sought to stamp a contemporary flourish - and their mark - upon the Prado. But one after another they have reeled away in frustration, complaining that constraints are so tight there is hardly anything for them to do.

But within these constraints, fine renovation work is emerging. In September the museum opened 12 refurbished rooms on its principal floor displaying more than 160 Flemish masters - including the world's biggest and finest Rubens collection - more than half of them restored to dazzling splendour, and 20 never exhibited before. A year ago, it gained a floor by lifting its attic roof, clearing out workshops and offices to reclaim the space for hanging paintings.

The new rooms are silk-lined and naturally lit. Dim paintings once lined up in chilly ranks are glowingly restored and grouped thematically as if adorning a palace salon. Discreet informative labels replace tags formerly cryptic to the point of incomprehensibility.

This all happened in the two-year limbo when expansion plans were frozen; culture minister Esperanza Aguirre caused apoplexy in Spain's sensitive art world in September 1996 when she annulled an international competition for ideas to expand the museum that attracted more than 500 architects. None of the proposals was suitable, she decreed, and sent 10 finalists back to the drawing board.

Since then, the museum has quietly taken piecemeal decisions limiting scope for the architectural imagination to fly. It acquired two buildings behind the main gallery: an office block and a ruined 17th-century cloister. The cloister deal was clinched in July only after protracted haggling with the church, and with the agreement of the Pope.

The museum decanted its administrative activities and library into the office block in March, and decided to revamp the cloister site, which is higher than the main building, by gouging out subterranean space for workshops, storerooms, gift shops, temporary exhibitions, cafes and meeting rooms - freeing up Villanueva's building for the permanent collection.

The nearby Army Museum housed in a 17th-century former Royal Palace was commandeered, and its military contents will be shipped to Toledo. The former palace ballroom, the Cason del Buen Retiro, that contains the museum's 19th-century collection, will be deepened by three floors. Henceforth, the museum will comprise five buildings.

"We are recuperating the buildings where our finest paintings were originally hung, putting them in their historical and architectural context. They are within walking distance in an urban neighbourhood of great historical importance and beauty. We must respect this area and treat it with dignity. It needs gentle intervention, not a bold gesture," says Checa.

Hence, architects are being asked to do little more than design a multi- storey catacomb beneath a ruined cloister, and link it to the main building by a tunnel. Proposals for covered walkways or perspex mega-canopies were dismissed two years ago as intrusive and absurd in a city whose glory is its sunny climate.

"We want to create an intellectually rigorous and enjoyable experience that will help people understand the history of our country, and something that is economically, politically and administratively manageable. Our idea might be mistaken, but at least it's coherent," says Checa.

Checa became director in May 1996, committed to sorting out the museum's Kafkaesque internal bureaucracy, and increasing the number of curators from six to 11. His debut was inauspicious. Within months, a sensation- seeker superglued a painting of his own to the wall of a room containing Flemish masters, including the Prado's only Rembrandt - and no one noticed for five days. Checa quietly invited a security director to resign and, for the first time in years, things have started to calm down.

He was the fifth government-appointed director in six years, a staggering turnover that contributed to a saga of embarrassing mishaps. Checa's predecessor, Jose Maria Luzon, was swept from office in April 1996 after wrongly hailing as a newly discovered Goya a work already registered in Madrid's local government archives as by Maella, a lesser contemporary. A preliminary sketch was even registered in the Prado's records.

The blunder revealed the damage caused by treating the museum as a political football. Luzon, an archaeologist with no specialist knowledge of Goya, was a grey placeman for the previous Socialist government. At least Checa is an art historian and specialist in the 16th- and 17th-century royal collections that lie at the heart of the museum.

Luzon's predecessor, Francisco Calvo Serailler, had to quit in 1994 after his wife, editor of a style magazine, set up a photo-feature in which designer chairs marched across the Prado's marble flags, with Velazquez masters figuring as a mere backdrop. Before him, Alfonso Perez Sanchez was sacked in 1991 for publicly opposing Spain's participation in the Gulf War.

The "raindrops" scandal prompted the resignation of director Felipe Vicente Garin in October 1993. That seismic shock jolted parliament into cross- party approval of an emergency repair programme which lumbered into action three years later.

The crisis prompted Socialist Culture Minister Carmen Alborch to announce a world competition for an expansion plan - a grand gesture dashed by her conservative successor, Aguirre, two years ago. If the latest, scaled- down plan is approved this month, it will be the first since 1956.

While museums throughout Europe have expanded and modernised to meet the public's insatiable lust for art, the Prado has done nothing, and is frenziedly compensating for 40 years of neglect. Recent efforts suggest they might just make it. The solutions on offer, timid and pragmatic compared with those adopted elsewhere, may even suit a subdued fin-de-siecle better than previous flamboyant schemes.

But there's still some way to go. Wanting to refresh my memory of The Witches' Flight, I found it had gone from where I'd seen it amid a collection of Goya sketches liberated last year from the vaults, but so fragile they are shown for only two months a year. Was it hanging elsewhere in the gallery, or had it been put in store? They weren't sure.

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