David Chipperfield Architects with Julian Harrap brings Berlin’s Neues Museum to life.
Until the Neues Museum reopened last fall in Berlin, few visitors knew about this quietly palatial edifice built between 1843 and 1859. Located to the north of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s magnificent Neoclassical Altes Museum (1824–30) on Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this conventionally dignified four-story museum was designed by Friedrich August Stüler, one of Schinkel’s leading pupils, to didactically display archaeological finds of the prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, and Classical eras. Stüler had a good client: Frederick William IV, who took over the Prussian kingdom in 1840, also studied architecture with Schinkel, as Joseph Rykwert recounts in Neues Museum Berlin: David Chipperfield Architects in Collaboration with Julian Harrap (2009). It was the king’s idea to devote a part of an island surrounded by the Spree River in central Berlin to a monumental architectural ensemble that attested to Germany’s intellectual and artistic stature.
Unfortunately, the Neues Museum was heavily bombed in World War II and halfheartedly repaired by the East German government before the country’s reunification in 1990. After decades of disuse, it is now conserved, rehabilitated, reconstructed, and remodeled by Chipperfield, with Harrap as the restoration architect. Since its October 2009 opening, the Neues has been drawing crowds to the cluster of five 19th-century museums on the island, including the Bode, the Pergamon, the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), and Schinkel’s Altes. In 2013, a Chipperfield-designed visitors’ center, the James Simon Center, will open to the west of the Neues as part of the architect’s master plan.
Photo : Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB)/Zentralarchiv–During World War II, the second level of the main stair hall was gutted.
Photo : Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB)/Zentralarchiv–The World War II bombings destroyed the South Dome at the corner of the main entrance façade.
Chipperfield and Harrap’s accomplishment with the Neues is prodigious. Their approach, like that of the 1964 International Charter of Conservation and Restoration of Monuments (aka the Venice Charter) calls for exposing changes that have occurred through time, rather than returning a building to its original condition, often as a facsimile. Scores of architects and consultants have labored on the $255 million project since 1997, when Chipperfield won the commission, after a drawn-out competition process that began in 1993. The result is a stunningly haunting setting that brings to the foreground fragile traces of history in the palimpsest of its walls, ceilings, floors, and columns. The ensemble offers a richly layered and sometimes coolly austere backdrop for Berlin State Museums’ Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Pre- and Early History, and artifacts from the Collection of Classical Antiquities that the building houses. With one or two cavils (more about these later), the restoration/modeling and installation design reflect the influence of the pathbreaking direction set forth by Franco Albini and Carlo Scarpa in their postwar museum renovations in Italy, such as Scarpa’s Castelvecchio in Verona (1964).
The Neues and its contents suffered a number of changes since it first opened, including a gallery modernization in the 1920s (which featured hung ceilings) and, more traumatically, the Allied bombings in 1943 and 1945. The war destruction left the stair hall as one big hole and the northwest wing and domed southeast corner a shambles. In the postwar years, repairs and shoring up of the structure kept the unused ruin intact.
In working with the approximately 220,660-square-foot palatial block, where galleries are organized around two courtyards flanking the monumental stair hall at the center (which Chipperfield rebuilt), the architects didn’t want to draw a hard line between what Chipperfield did with the new and Harrap with the old. Their collaboration demonstrates they could work out an approach that incorporates a certain philosophy about fragments (“They needed to be put back in a meaningful context,” says Chipperfield), and about gaps in the original building fabric (“We realized when a gap is about 10 centimeters [4 inches], it’s quite easy. When it’s 2 meters [6½ feet], it’s a bit more difficult; and when it’s 20 meters [65½ feet], it’s something completely different”). In filling in the gaps, Chipperfield sought to retain a sense of unity by introducing a concrete aggregate that would both identify and link the new interventions. This precast concrete, formed of white cement, sand, and Saxonian marble chips, provides the dominant material for galleries in the northwest wing, the main stair hall and its enclosing walls, and the post-and-lintel platform structure inserted in the Egyptian Courtyard. (The Greek Courtyard, on the eastern side of the museum, has been left pretty much intact, although like the Egyptian Courtyard, it receives daylight from an expansive glass-and-steel roof.)
In addition, a number of new walls and ceilings needed to be reconstructed. To do so, the team found 1,350,000 bricks from buildings throughout Europe to create the now-exposed surfaces, often supported by a new poured-in-place concrete structure. The most effective use of masonry occurs in the stair hall, where reddish industrial brick and edge-laid terra-cotta tiles animate upper walls once dominated by historically themed murals, since destroyed. Both new exterior and interior brick walls are treated with a thin mortar slurry to give the brick a muted tone, a coloration approach found elsewhere in variegated wall finishes that highlight differences in the ages of the surfaces. An impressive display of the recycled brick occurs in the rebuilt southeast dome, where beehive corbeling surrounds majestic Roman statues. Topped by a lantern of sandblasted glass and metal, the space in the daytime seems suffused with the eerie half-light of the interior of Schinkel’s nearby Neue Wacht (Royal Guard House).
section A-A-drawing Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects
sections-drawing Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects
floor plans-drawing Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects
It’s impossible to study David Chipperfield without looking at his greatest work to date. The Neues Museum takes your breath away when you enter; the immense detail that Chipperfield has gone to to preserve every detail of the building’s original craftsmanship is staggering.
His vision for the building was to protect the ruin of the museum, freezing its history in a point of time, as a document of ‘not only the destruction of the war but also the physical erosion of the last 60 years’ (Chipperfield, 2009b, p. 11). The success of his endeavour comes from the adept attention to detail that went into the project. Every room was treated according to its design and decoration as when it was first built in the mid 19th century. In some rooms the decoration was superficially intact, in others only the faint remnants remained, and that’s the state in which they have been preserved.
The same philosophy is used on the exterior; the classical detailing has been assessed individually and only minimal intervention is used where necessary to provide ‘physical and conservational support’ (Harrap, 2009b, p. 124), with priority always given to the existing material.
The spatial strategy, the composition, the language and the materiality all follow the same philosophical vision. Chipperfield maintained the original floor plan where possible but integrated modern features as well. In particular the cloakroom, education room and cafe are all modern interventions but they’re done with the same attention to detail as the rest of the building so you almost don’t notice that you’re entering a newly constructed part.
The original composition of windows is maintained on the façade preserving the classical composure and elegance. Where the building has been rebuilt, particularly in the central stairway and the north wings the materiality and language do not try to mimic the original, nor do they try to override it. In the stairway ‘sections of the wall were rebuilt with alternate bands of striated industrial red brick and edge-laid terracotta blocks’ (Harrap, 2009b, p. 126). It maintains a sensitive composure with elegance and dignity through the attention to detail of the craftsman.
The staircase is one of the most powerful additions to the museum. It follows the form of the original stair but the materiality is fresh. The precast marble concrete with a stone aggregate provides a contemporary, yet conservative, grace. ‘The elements of the stair that are to be touched, such as the treads and handrails, are polished, while the rest of the structure has been distressed to provide a roughened finish’ (Harrap, 2009b, p. 126).
Although Chipperfield went to great care to maintain his philosophical vision there were compromises. With 1 million expected visitors per year the floors could not be preserved in the same manner as the columns, walls and ceilings.
The second compromise, which led to a great deal of debate, was the removal of the 1980s interventions. Consolidation works in the 1980s had introduced large areas of red engineering brick. In keeping with the philosophical approach these should have been retained as they were a part of the building’s history; but Chipperfield believed they would detract from the harmony of the building. His compromise was to restore the building to the form recorded in photographs taken before the intervention.
The precedent and inspiration for Chipperfield’s vision comes from two sources, the first is Joseph Gandy’s watercolour The Bank of England in Ruins. Friedrich Stüler – the original architect of the Neues Museum – would have seen this painting on a visit to Sir Joseph Soane in London, and the lightweight clay pot construction visible in the Bank of England is something Stüler was inspired to incorporate into his Neues Museum. So it is quite coincidental that a century and a half later the Neues would stand in a very similar state to the watercolour, and a fitting image from which Chipperfield could not abstain.
His second precedent was Hans Döllgast’s Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Döllgast restored the war ravaged museum in a manner very close to what Chipperfield has done with the Neues; he retained all the elements he could and preserved their damaged character. However Döllgast’s approach differed, he radically reordered the interior plan, and his ambitions were ‘far simpler, less complex and sophisticated’.
Chipperfield states that if he had made the same proposal to a ruin in England there is no way it would have been accepted. Germany on the other hand is a lot more open to suggestion. Chipperfield is very sensitive to cultural and political context and takes it deeply into consideration in his projects such as how he used the Neues’ philosophical document to gain approval for the proposal. His sensitivity is also noticeable where he pushed the boundaries of using classical order post-war in Museum of Modern Literature.