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A victory for architecture

David Chipperfield has recovered astonishingly diverse vestiges of history in Berlin's Neues Museum. By Bernhard Schulz

The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV wanted to create a "sanctuary for art and science" on the Spree Island north of Schinkel's museum. Architect Friedrich August Stüler, chosen to execute the monarch's demands after Schinkel's premature death in 1841, saw the Neues Museum - which he designed and opened in 1855 - as "a focal point for the most elevated intellectual interests of the people."

West facade Neues Museum, View from the Schlossbrücke © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz David Chipperfield Architects, photographer: Ute Zscharnt

So the aims for the Museum Island were not exactly set low. And yet the project existed in completed form for only a short time: for the nine years between the opening of the Pergamon Museum in 1930 and the closing of all museums with the onset of war in 1939. The Neues Museum, which sustained more damage from bombs and artillery than any of the other buildings on the island, never reopened.

But now that's about to change. On 5 March, the museum, reconstructed according to the plans of London architect David Chipperfield, will be handed over to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which will then install the artwork to be exhibited. Before the installation, the public will have three days to view the building itself. It is, after the brilliant restoration of the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Bode Museum, the third extensive renovation on the island - and the first to resurrect a building that had utterly fallen out of consciousness.

Staircase Hall circa 1985 © SMB / Zentralarchiv

The 233 million euro endeavour will be met with a powerful response - because, in contrast to the restoration of the other two island museums, the Neues Museum is not bound to an intact prewar history. On the contrary: Naked and bare, it shows what the war did to it. A colossal stairway deprived of the fresco decor that had been completely burned away; domes without decoration, walls devoid of smooth plaster. That, at any rate, is how the detractors of Chepperfield's concept will see it, people who see nothing other than "ruin nostalgia" in the carefully preserved traces of history.

A first tour of the building indeed reveals many traces of the extravagant wealth of ornament that once decorated the building's interior. But it also shows something else: The concept of "complementary restoration" developed by David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap, his consultant specialising in historic buildings. It doesn't offer us pleasantly adorned spaces but rather makes us aware of architecture itself - in the dazzling abundance of its expressive capabilities.

Staircase Hall © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Joerg von Bruchhausen

Stüler had not just built a shell to be dressed in Egyptian, Hellenistic, or austerely antiquarian decorations and then filled, finally, almost parenthetically, with statues and display cases - the devotees of the previous appearance would no longer welcome that, either. The Schinkel student was, far more than the earlier building might suggest, a great experimenter and innovator who devised a new form for almost every spatial purpose. Of course this was also a consequence of the technical challenges involved in building a colossal edifice on weak bedrock, necessitating the invention of solutions that went beyond the known horizons of the time. And this was true to such an extent that, even today, there were no norms or standards for the reconstruction of certain features; instead, structural engineers had to test their durability on site.

Griechischer Hof - Greek Courtyard
© Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Christian Richters

The huge diversity of spatial forms now emerges more clearly than ever. As symmetric and thoroughly uniform as the building may appear from outside, especially from the Kupfergraben side that was half obstructed in Stüler's day by manufacturing plants, the interior presents itself as conversely multifaceted. The technological progress achieved in the two and a half decades after the completion of Schinkel's Old Museum allowed for spatial configurations and decorations that corresponded to the objects on display. As a result, we have the narrative wall frescoes of the halls, which more or less describe the history of the ancient kingdoms whose material testaments were on display, as well as the famous Egyptian Courtyard showing a copy of the Temple of Karnak, scaled down by a third and outfitted, by the way, with hieroglyphs glorifying the achievements of the Prussian king.

Wall Paintings Egyptian Courtyard, Level 1
© Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Ute Zscharnt

This courtyard - like its counterpart, the Greek Courtyard - has only returned in rudimentary form. Both courtyards are covered by glass: the Greek one, empty and bare but for the frieze announcing the destruction of Pompeii; the Egyptian, filled with a kind of terrace that occupies space as a freestanding architectural element. In the Modern Hall, the walled arcades have been preserved; in the Maiolica Hall on the top floor, the low domes over slender cast iron columns remain, as do the iron tension booms that hold the flat arches together in the Niobid Hall. The octagonal Northern Cupola Hall - at the centre of which Nofretete will be enthroned - has survived the decades passably. In contrast, its counterpart to the south, on the side bordering Schinkel's Altes Museum, was already torn down during the first East German reconstruction attempts. Here Chipperfield has constructed a totally new cupola above the quadratic floor plan, stunning in its idiosyncrasy and elegance, yet without spandrels.

Egyptian Courtyard © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Christian Richters

The visitor will probably only notice all this abundance after seeing the central architectural element: the centrally positioned stairwell, that was once adorned with frescoes by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. In East German days, there had been plans to restore the frescose making use of the available 1:1 preparatory drawings – an undertaking that our current praxis of historical monument preservation strictly rejects. But early ideas about reorganising the monumental, double-barrelled staircase spanning three floors were also rejected.

Vaults Mediaeval Room © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Ute Zscharnt

According to Chipperfield, there was no solution better than the one proposed by Stüler. Now, the staircase unfolds before intimidatingly bare side walls, beneath a basilican, open roof truss whose dark heaviness bears down on the space. The only brightness issues from the concrete and marble dust mix of the new stairs - a material also used to full advantage by Chipperfield in the remaining, newly constructed parts of the building, such as the northwest wing that was completely destroyed during the war. This wing – adjacent to the Pergamon – has until now elicited fierce protests because its appearance deviates visibly from the southern part. But that is where the misunderstanding lies, this desire not to understand Chipperfield's methodology. Throughout the building there should should be no doubt as to which elements are true to the original, which ones have been restored, which ones have been supplemented or copied, and which ones are completely new. Many demands are placed on the eye of the beholder but historicity of the architecture becomes legible. This corresponds perfectly to the spirit in which the New Museum was created – because it was designed to bear witness to the state of archaeology, a field just taking shape at the time and inseparable from the idea of transience.

Neobids Hall, view into the North Dome Room © Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz/DavidChipperfield Architects, photographer: Ute Zscharnt

The New Museum was shaped not by the timeless educational ideals of humanism, which achieves its perfect expression in the rotunda of Schinkel's Altes Museum, but rather by the lucidity of a field of scholarship, circa 1850, that was proud of its successes. In the hail of bombs during the second world war, this museum was burned out. What remained of it, and what Chipperfield has recovered, was and is an architecture – of astonishing diversity.


This article originally appeared in German in the Tagesspiegel on 27 February, 2009.

Bernhard Schulz is an editor for the Tagesspiegel.

Translation: Daniel Mufson

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