Austere reconstruction: how the main staircase hall will look.
Reassembling Berlin’s Neues Museum was always going to be a delicate negotiation with Germany’s turbulent 20th century history, but Chipperfield has done considerably more than simply replicate the past.
We have no physical equivalent of Berlin’s Museum Island, and they have no architectural equivalent to what the Brits are doing there. If in some alternative universe the British Museum, the National and Portrait Galleries, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum were all crammed into an eyot in the Thames somewhere around Blackfriars – in a state of partial ruination – that would give a flavour of it. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, Museumsinsel is still surprisingly little-known, remarkably under-populated for a warm early summer’s day in midweek. I venture into the cafe in Schinkel’s Altes Museum for a spot of lunch and find that I’m virtually the only person there. Imagine experiencing that in Bloomsbury, or Paris’s Louvre district.
This is still a €1.5bn work in progress, the updating of a chunk of Imperialist Prussia and Weimar Germany – the Altes and Neues Museums, the old National Gallery, the Pergamon and Bode Museums – built between 1825 and 1930. Following the damage inflicted by war, these fell into what became East Berlin and they and the recombined national collections are not yet fully reassimilated.
David Chipperfield has been working on Museumsinsel since 1997, when he won the international competition to restore Friedrich August Stüler’s bomb-damaged Neues Museum of 1843-55. He is undertaking the project with conservation architect Julian Harrap. The following year he was appointed lead masterplanner for the whole campus, and his plan was approved in 1999. Then in 2007 came the go-ahead to build the new entrance building to the Museumsinsel, known as the James Simon Gallery after a generous early benefactor of the museums. Filling the ghostly space left by Schinkel’s former Custom House buildings (demolished in the 1930s) the g73m James Simon Gallery will perform much the same function as Pei’s orientation sequence beneath the pyramid at the Louvre, or Foster’s Great Court at the British Museum. With its tall colonnade and monumental staircase approach, it will read clearly as a new insertion – though inspired by Stüler’s original colonnaded forum architecture linking the museums at ground level.
But that is not on site yet, unlike the Neues Museum which is moving steadily towards completion. There is also a finished Chipperfield commission, the private and very prominent four-storey ‘Am Kupfergraben 10’ gallery and townhouse building on a street corner facing the Neues Museum across the water. As the office’s main man in Berlin, Martin Reichert, observes as we make the tour: ‘It’s becoming quite a Chippo quarter round here.’ As a consequence, Chipperfield enjoys a prominence in Berlin that he does not yet in London. He and Simon Rattle at the Berliner Philharmonie are Englanders who command a high degree of press attention and general respect, despite or because of the occasional controversies.
At present, Museumsinsel feels as if the Berlin Wall might still run a few hundred yards away, as if the streets still reeked of the two-stroke exhausts of Trabants, and Erich Honecker’s glitzy 1970s Palast der Republik with its 1001 lamps was still packing in the party faithful nearby, just beyond the cathedral. There has, however, been a reversal of fortune. Where the Neues Museum remained a bombed-out partial ruin throughout the lifespan of East Germany, it is now being pieced back together in a quite remarkably subtle fashion at a cost of some g233m. Meanwhile ‘Erich’s lamp shop’ as it was mutinously known, symbol of the old Soviet Bloc republic, is looking better than I have ever known it – as a half-demolished ruin.
The one thing that unites the two projects of respective reconstruction and destruction is their capacity to engender debate. For instance, the palast could well have been converted into a sixth museum, for contemporary art, say, rather than the antiquities and 19th century work that is the mainstay of the Museumsinsel. But, interestingly, keeping it for any purpose turned out to be politically less acceptable in reunited Berlin than the 1999 rehabilitation of Goering’s Reich Air Ministry building, originally designed by Ernst Sagebiel. That building had also later been an East German government power base, and is now the Finance Ministry.
All this is to explain the sometimes tortuous mental processes of the German heritage movement, inextricably bound up with the turbulent politics of the 20th century. Generally they prefer to remove inconvenient traces of history – the retained Second World War graffiti in Foster’s Reichstag being a rare exception. The palast is being demolished, for instance, in punishment for having obliterated the remains of Berlin’s imperial castle. A scheme even exists to reconstruct the vanished castle in part-replica. This mindset is utterly different from the Ruskin/Morris-influenced approach of the Neues Museum team. Chipperfield and Harrap go to remarkable lengths to make utterly clear what is new and what is old and – where restoration rather than replacement has taken place – that the marks of repair are clearly visible.
Chipperfield’s new insertions are heavily influenced by the original architecture, but not smothered by it. The result is a palimpsest – an expensively restored building which will still give the impression, when it reopens late in 2009, of being somehow semi-derelict. This is a delicate balancing act to achieve, and it has not previously been the German way. There has been the inevitable criticism from the more conservative end of the spectrum, along the lines of ‘the British destroyed the museum once, now they’re doing it again’. There have been calls for Stüler’s somewhat overwrought interiors to be reinstated in their entirety. Reichert laughs as he tells the story. ‘It’s all politics,’ he explains.
Below ground, the various basements to the separate cultural buildings have been opened up to create a new subterranean spine route known as the Archaeological Promenade. Thus, although the campus is being restored by a number of architects other than Chipperfield (Hilmer Sattler Albrecht at the Altes Museum, OM Ungers at the Pergamonmuseum, Heinz Tesar at the Bode-Museum, with overall landscape by Levin Monsigny) they will work together as a unity.
The Neues Museum is, in its way, the most fundamentalist in approach. The restoration aspects directed by Julian Harrap with Chipperfield are described on page 50. The insertions aim to evoke rather than replicate the past, maintaining floor, cornice and string course levels and window placing and proportions. The two new sections visible from the outside are built in rough salvaged brick which – like brickwork revealed by the loss of stucco – is toned down with an application of a lime-based wash that Chipperfield describes as ‘slurry’. Fragments of statuary are incorporated into the masonry at the rear, while Stüler’s unifying colonnade – dismantled and stored in the last years of East Germany pending a proposed restoration – is now at last being put back. The overall effect is, appropriately enough in this context, a stripped classicism of a kind familiar from Nordic countries in the early to middle years of the 20th century.
Inside, the most remarkable single architectural gesture is the full-height tholos that Chipperfield has created beneath a domed oculus in the rear corner he has reinstated. This is primitivism writ large: the same rough brick seen externally forms the internal finish as well, rising through blurred pendentives from a square to a circle.
The other remarkable achievement is the interior use of precast concrete of a quality scarcely ever attained in the UK. Chipperfield uses two grades – a smooth-polished, reflective, aggregate-rich variety mostly for floors and walls (and the sumptuously austere new main staircase with its integrally moulded handrail) and a sandblasted honey-coloured type predominantly for columns, frames and ceiling panels. The slender ceiling panels are designed to be slid open for services access.
The new interleaves with the original and the restored throughout, with the relative emphasis always changing on your walk through the building. It is a journey of constant surprises, in a way that would just not be the case in an exact-replica restoration. The fact that the original rich painted finishes in the Egyptian halls now exist only above the line of a one-time suspended ceiling, for instance, is somehow more interesting than seeing them conjecturally extended back down to the floor. A new Chipperfield apsidal projection into the main atrium (previously an open courtyard) helps to counterpoint the missing sections of classical frieze.
There are still unresolved points of detail about the interiors, mostly focusing on how many salvaged neoclassical elements should be reincorporated. But the overall impression is of a powerful, fully engaged mind at full stretch. No wonder Chipperfield describes this project as the most fascinating he has ever undertaken. Even the new sections contrive to be archaeological. In the end, the name that most persistently comes to mind is that of no neoclassical or stripped-classical architect, but a master familiar to Chipperfield from his Italian projects. In all respects, the memory of Carlo Scarpa is being well served.
The exhibition The Neues Museum, Berlin: Restoration, Repair and Intervention is at the Soane Museum, London, until 6 September.