In 1849, Richard Wagner fled Germany for Zurich, escaping retribution for his political involvement in the May Uprising against the Saxon government. Although the composer and Dresden Opera conductor finished the libretto for his Ring Cycle at the start of his exile, the period was volatile, marked by poverty and his wife, Minna’s, worsening depression. Yet in 1852, Wagner met silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, who took him under his wing, and by the middle of the decade Wagner was residing at his wealthy benefactor’s villa—designed by architect Leonhard Zeugheer in 1857 on 16.5 acres overlooking Lake Zurich.
Today, the Wesendonck Villa is known as the Rietberg Museum, founded in 1952 to house the collection of banker Eduard von der Heydt at the estate, now owned by the city of Rietberg. The collection of art and artifacts gathered outside Europe ranges from 3rd-century Indian religious figurines to 16th-century Persian illustrations to paintings from China’s Qing Dynasty. Over time, the permanent collection grew to nearly 4,000 objects, and the historic building proved too small to accommodate the institution’s artifacts as well as traveling exhibitions. In 2002, museum officials, working with Switzerland’s Land Bureau for the Conservation of Historic Monuments, held a competition for the design of an addition. The firm of Berlin-based architect Alfred Grazioli and Viennese architect Adolf Krischanitz, both professors at the Berlin University of the Arts, was selected. The architects’ foremost concern was to leave Zeugheer’s original architecture and landscape largely undisturbed, even though they proposed adding 17,000 square feet to the museum, twice the area of the Wesendonck Villa. But in the manner of Renzo Piano’s expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City [record October, 2006, page 93], or the Steven Holl–designed wing for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri [record July 2007, page 92], Grazioli and Krischanitz chose to submerge 80 percent of the addition. Buried underground, except for one visible glass elevation, today the Emerald, as it is called, plunges 39 feet below the surface of Moränen Hill, a slight bump adjacent to the former main residence. The scheme allows visitors to stroll around the parklike grounds much as the Wesendoncks once did.