Historicity of Restrained Modernism

architect David Chipperfield
project Rebuilding and repair of Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
written by Claus Käpplinger

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Hardly ever was a project, hardly ever was an architect under such numerous attacks, as was the case with the British David Chipperfield and his rebuilding of the Neues Museum building in Berlin. The controversy over this project was and is still being pursued with so much ferocity and passion that it could be compared with the conflicts about Loos’s house on Michaelerplatz, opposite the Vienna Hofburg. In both cases, the subject of the conflict was modernism, or the question of how much new is allowed in a significant place of a historic representative building. While Loos introduced modernism with his house in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century, Chipperfield in Berlin primarily cared about a new symbiosis of old and new, about contemporary architecture which is self-assertive and aware of the historicity of its location in a demonstrative manner.


For almost 70 years, Neues Museum was a ruin on Berlin’s Museum Island. Burned and severely damaged in the Second World War, the masterpiece by Friedrich Schinkel’s pupil August Stüler stayed empty and was left to crumble. Built between 1843 and 1855, this surprising experimental building had the most diverse structural systems. The architect used them to react to the extremely problematic subsoil structure. This building, built partly massively and partly with cast-iron columns and perforated ceramic vaults in order to reduce the ceiling load, hosted all the antique collections of the Hohenzoller dynasty.


Although the East German state attempted to carry out renovation of the building during the last years of its existence, the process of renovation started only in the mid-1990s with a failed competition for the Berlin Museum Island master plan, and then with a more successful procedure of expertise for Neues Museum in 1997. The first competition turned out to be a failure due to a conflict between the user, the State Museums of Berlin, and politics, the director for construction in the Berlin Senate, Hans Stimmann. Each side wanted to push their own favourites. Yet, neither was extrovert Frank O. Gehry given a chance, nor quiet Giorgio Grassi, but the British David Chipperfield took his turn. He was able to present himself as a mediator to the arguing parties with his reflexive, moderate modernism with obvious classicist relations.


Nevertheless, more than 12 years had to pass in order to make his several-times-reworked project of the museum restoration a reality. These were years in which the architect was again and again exposed to heated polemics among the self-proclaimed guardians of tradition who wanted to carry out a complete restoration of the museum and there­fore saw any form of modernity as the act of destruction of the city. These were years during which David Chipperfield was elaborating his project from time to time even without financing. This was his first public project and here he was able to prove the potential of his architecture, in a programmatic sense, on a large-scale project for the first time. It is interesting that conservators did not make it difficult for him; from the very beginning they supported his concept. ¶ What is it that represents the special achievement of David Chipperfield? First, he re-established the historical volumes of the two-winged building; he rebuilt the destroyed northern wing and south-eastern space with the dome using the found materials on the spot: with Prussian format bricks, but in a reduced abstracted form. And then he convinced all participants in the project that there was need for restoration in the sense of preserving the found: not to make additions, but to retain the found in fragmentary preserved form. All historical traces of destruction and deterioration can be read from the walls and ceilings in his rooms; it is possible to clearly distinguish the old from the new. In the same way as August Stüler entirely in the spirit of his historicist period staged almost every room as an epoch for itself in terms of construction and painting (after Egypt, Greece and Rome, even Germania followed), so Chipperfield’s work, and that of the restorers, created from the Stüler’s historical collage of styles above all a fragmented cosmos out of time and space fragments which thanks to a restrained minimalistic renovation look reconciled.


Visitors to the museum will be exposed to controversial feelings when they find themselves in the intact building full of fragments and fractures which bring to consciousness 160 years of the changing history of the museum. Together with the already greatly diversified scale and design of rooms by August Stüler, a kaleidoscope of spatial configurations and impressions of almost dizzying character opens and demands again and again a positioning of one’s own person in time and space. Suddenly, we will feel as if we are archaeologists who have to separate and determine layers and rudiments one from another.


It is all connected only as a result of Chipperfield’s fine feeling for space and materiality. By help of artificial stone which contains 70% light Saxonian marble chips, he created in the building’s interior a new, very reserved framework for fragments which we nevertheless can recognize as something of our own, not merely satisfying a service function. The artificial stone with its abstractness and homogeneous feature represents a visual counterpoint to the small format bricks with which Chipperfield rebuilt the lost walls. The bricks originate from old destroyed buildings and here they were given a new purpose. Especially in the design of both now-closed light wells and the new/old central stairway, the architect was in a position to elaborate different qualities of both materialities in an impressive manner. His inserted staircase body seems colossal, even monumental, but at the same time light, kind and abstract. It follows the model of Stüler, but is transformed in the minimalistic coolness of the present moment.


Still, the staging elements of Chipperfield’s restoration of the Neues Museum building are smaller surfaces and more light and space. One of his most important achievements is the fact that this will again be a museum with lots of daylight. Light enters here luxuriously into almost all rooms and their atmosphere can change to a great extent during the course of one day or as a result of changes of season. The view of the rooms and their greatly diversified ceilings is not marred by large light fixtures. Perforated material made of glass fibres, transparent and barely visible, is lowered only in case of especially intense light penetration. The atmosphere of the new space in the renovated Egyptian light well is undoubtedly fascinating to the greatest extent. There, mild light spills over the works from Thutmose’s sculpture workshop via a sandblasted illuminated ceiling and patinated glass partitions.


The public will still have to wait to experience the Neues Museum building until October this year, until the opening of the Egyptian museum and Museum of Pre- and Early His­tory. Then it will become clear whether the staging of the exhibition display for which Michele de Lucchi is responsible will match Chipperfield’s minimalism, which established its own irreplaceable position of reflexive modernism, above all harmoniously unifying something of Classicism, something of Japanese, something of the cold British Romanticism of ruins and a lot of Historicism.