Sir Norman Foster has been chosen to mastermind a plan which will see the site of one of Russia's most impressive museums turned into a multi-museum complex. Provided the concept is approved by planners and follows schedule, the modernisation of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts will be completed by 2012, in time for the museum's centenary.

The idea of turning the Pushkin museum into a "museum compound" is a not new one. It was first conceived by the museum's founder, Ivan Tsvetayev, father of poet Marina Tsvetayeva. Then, Tsvetaev looked to broaden the museum beyond a merely educative aim, propelled by a vision of turning it into a repository and gallery of world art.

The museum's collection has been growing ever since its foundation. And this has continuously presented problems, with gifts and acquisitions stretching the museum's capacity to the limit. Neighbouring buildings were soon annexed to the museum; while cramped and crowded conditions meant that works began to be displayed in quick rotation.

Even when the impressionist and modern art collections were transferred to the Mansion of the Vyazemsky-Dolgoruky Princes several years ago, the space was promptly taken up by 18th century Italian masters that had long been looking for a home. Several refurbished and modernised small mansions handed over to the museum were filled with similar rapidity by private collections of Russian Avant Garde and modern artists. The other remaining buildings were used to house the Moussaillon Educational Center.

In short, it became absolutely clear that the Pushkin museum was not going to solve its main problems through either annexation or property accumulation. At the turn of the 21st century, the building had become reminiscent of the Acropolis: a main classical building built in early 20th century, surrounded by a cluster of a dozen or so architecturally non-descript outbuildings.
This led the Pushkin museum's charismatic director, Irina Antonova, to approach Norman Foster. Of course, Antonova was influenced by the architect's stellar status Р winning prestigious Pritzker Prize, gold medals from the Royal Academy of Architecture in London and the French Academy of Architecture amongst other numerous titles and decorations. But it was Foster's delicate and sensitive work transforming the Great Court of the British Museum which caught her real attention. Over time, Antonova became convinced that he could create a similar, structural solution that would be vital for the Pushkin Museum's continued, 21st century operation.

So, in 2006, the Pushkin Museum hosted an exhibition "Space and Time", designed as a prelude to this future project, in addition to show-casing and celebrating his past work. The exhibition featured Foster's most famous buildings: huge models of the Millennium Tower, the world's tallest skyscrapers to be built in China, high-rise offices in New York and Frankfurt, the Millau Viaduct in France, the Millennium Bridge in London, the Modern Arts Centre in Nimes, France, the reconstruction of the British Museum and the new dome for the Reichstag in Berlin.

For the Russian audience, Norman Foster was already a known quantity. He has a growing portfolio in the country, and is recognised above all as the man behind the huge, three sided Russia Tower in Moscow's new business district; the mixed-use reconstruction of the 18th century "New Holland" architectural ensemble in St Petersburg; and a plan to redevelop the site of the former "Rossiya" hotel.

His work has also managed to attract some criticism. Indeed, prior to this announcement, Russian architectural critics publicly voiced fears that the father of the "hi-tech" style С with signature steel and glass С would use his trademark method and enclose the Pushkin Museum in a huge glass shell.

Foster seemed to anticipate these concerns when he spoke at the press-conference. The architect demonstrably paused as he delivered the phrase: "if you interpret hi-tech as an indiscriminate chase of advanced and sophisticated technology for its own sake, I will categorically deny that we are hi-tech architects."

As it transpires, the design of the new-look Pushkin Museum does envisage some use of glass, but this is on a very discreet scale. The architect is more concerned with improving "blood flow" to the complex, its communication systems, rather than major "surgery". Foster said: "I am not planning to introduce any physical changes in the main building of the museum built and I pledge to respect the historical heritage of Moscow and do the refurbishment with the utmost care," he stressed.

Indeed, the scale model seems to demonstrate that no "drastic surgery" will be applied to Moscow's historical buildings. At first glance, everything stays in place, to the point that the project even appears to be lightweight, almost cosmetic.

Root deeper, and you will see that the most spacious parts of the new structures actually will be underground. By putting many of the service structures Рlibrary, store rooms, concert hall, restaurant, cafe, shops and parking lot Р underground, exhibition space will be increased four to five times.

On the whole the museum compound will be a traffic-free zone; present-streets will be turned into boulevards. This, incidentally, is broadly in line with Tsvetaev's original museum blueprint, which featured an additional plot of land or "green pause" between building and the street.
After reconstruction, the museum complex is expected to receive 3 million visitors a year, growing to 5 million by 2017 (at present it has 1 million visitors annually). A new metro entrance will be built to support the increased numbers.

What is striking about this plan, in contrast to the original designs is that Foster has adjusted his idea to take future growth into account. "We would like to create a very flexible structure because a museum grows over time, changes and needs improvements," the architect said.

Norman Foster's other architectural projects in Russia

Foster & Partners are in charge of the exciting Zaryadnye project in down-town Moscow, This will eventually see the site of now-demolished Rossiya hotel reverting to its historical street grid pattern.

The New Holland Redevelopment will see the creation of 7.6 hectares of mixed-use cultural, social and recreation space in one of St Petersburg's most magical enclaves, right in the heart of the historical city.

Foster has plans for a 60-storey tower, rising above the small, but oil-rich Siberian city of Khanty Mansyisk. The tower will be a place for living, working and leisure, sheltered from the harsh climate.