There comes a time in many young art institutions’ lives when they have to grow up; elevating from daring upstart to established institution. Such was the case with SITE Santa Fe, an inventive Kunsthalle located in a boxy former beer warehouse in Santa Fe’s Railyard district. SITE, which recently turned 20, had over the years hired renowned architects like Greg Lynn, Graft, Todd Williams and Billie Tsien to enact temporary changes, but it needed something permanent and ambitious. ‘We were dreaming of something much more,’ explains SITE director and chief curator Irene Hofmann.

Earlier this month SITE celebrated the results of that undertaking – a reimagined facility designed by New York-based SHoP Architects. The museum now boasts about 14,000 new sq ft of (well-organised) space, much-needed technical improvements, and a dramatic new entryway.

That extended entrance, which the architects call the ‘prow’ because of how it juts sharply out toward the street, is a layered, folded, and perforated aluminium beacon that simultaneously pulls people in, defines a new outdoor plaza and frames the sky. It changes dramatically as light around it shifts, both day and night.

The building’s ‘prow’ defines the new outdoor plaza, framing the sky. Photography: Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Its digitally-modeled creation, says SHoP principal Christopher Sharples, was inspired by the corrugated aluminum sides of boxcars in the nearby railyard, and by the triangular shapes prevalent in the city’s indigenous designs. Beyond the new beacon, a glass curtain wall exposes and draws people into SITE’s expanded, wide open new lobby, which flows freely into a gift shop and café. ‘We were taking the closed, opaque spaces and opening them up to the city,’ explains Sharples, who likened the complex, budget-challenged project to open heart surgery.

Galleries, in many ways familiar, have been slightly reconfigured with temporary walls. Around them are a new multi-purpose learning lab, a large, flexible auditorium, new offices, storage, a central courtyard and, above it, a sky terrace. All these spaces have been fitted with new lighting, electricity and (something SITE amazingly never had before) climate control; allowing them to stay open a much greater portion of the year and draw artists that couldn’t work in the previous conditions.

Happily the team preserved some of the old facility’s rough edges – like the concrete floors, marred in places from artist interventions, and the original stucco façade, albeit painted black, playing a sneaky supporting role. While much of the intervention is understated, it’s impossible to miss the jagged, brash prow, and its smaller sibling to the museum’s rear (which frames a smaller public space).

‘It’s scrappy, it’s got some attitude,’ says Sharples. Much like SITE. Whether the institution will maintain its jagged edges remains to be seen. But there’s no question about its elevated standing as one of the America’s homes of artistic innovation.