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Wednesday23 July 2014

David Chipperfield’s Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany

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Following the triumph of the Neues Museum, Chipperfield’s latest building in Essen had a tough act to follow. And while it is accomplished, has the architect played it too safe?

Given that the past six months have brought him a knighthood, a major retrospective and the opening of the project that has been widely hailed as his masterpiece, it is fair to say that David Chipperfield has something of a challenge on his hands. The man is after all only 57 — a tender age to reach one’s apotheosis. When they were this old, Le Corbusier was still a couple of years from building the Unité d’Habitation while Mies had yet to realise a single building in America. Chipperfield has the opportunity and, God-willing, the time to undertake a great deal yet.

Steps to the entrance courtyard.

Credit: Christian Richters

Steps to the entrance courtyard.

The remodelling of the Neues Museum was the final and most extensively documented of the 65 schemes to feature in the recent Design Museum retrospective, leaving little room for doubt that this was the oeuvre’s crowning achievement. As such, it offered the show an emphatic conclusion but also cast a troubling shadow over everything that had gone before. While the standard of the projects on show never dropped below the excellent, what were we to make of the idea that this last one represented an achievement of a different order? Was its exceptionality just a matter of the scheme’s scale and complexity or was it that the Neues Museum demonstrated something the others lacked?

Attending the opening of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, last month, following completion of Chipperfield’s very substantial expansion, I began to get a sense of the qualities on which such a distinction might rest. This building is — let me be clear — as impressive a project as I expect to review this year. To add that no-one is going to rush to claim it as a masterpiece might therefore be thought mean-spirited, but we are talking about an architect who has now set himself a very high bar.

The Museum Folkwang — literally “People’s Hall” — was founded in 1902 with a remit to exhibit natural history, crafts and contemporary art; indeed, it lays claim to the title of the earliest museum of contemporary art in Europe. It has had an eventful history. Having relocated to Essen from its original home in Hagen in 1922, it lost a large part of its collection when the Nazis auctioned off works that they deemed “degenerate”. The two gallery buildings were then destroyed by the campaign of allied bombing directed at the city — home of the Krupp steel and armaments plants — in the latter years of the second world war. They were replaced in 1960 by a building designed by local architects Werner Kreutzberger, Erich Hösterey & Horst Loy which in turn was extended by other hands in 1983.

The interior is configured around a series of internal courtyards.

Credit: Christian Richters

The interior is configured around a series of internal courtyards.

Four years ago, it was decided that Essen would serve as the 2010 European Capital of Culture, prompting the city’s decision to undertake a refurbishment of the Folkwang complex. This was a prospect that the museum authorities viewed with less than total enthusiasm. While the laconic, quasi-Miesian spaces of the1960 building continued to be much admired, the 1983 extension had proved altogether more troublesome, complicated as it was by its architect’s sweet-tooth for multiple changes of floor level and 45 degree angles in plan. The museum let it be known that it would sooner see the extension demolished and rebuilt anew only to be told that the city was in no position to fund the replacement of a building that was scarcely 20 years old. Fortunately, at this point, a white knight appeared in the form of the Krupp-Stiftung charitable foundation — a fund whose enormous wealth is based on the assets of the late industrial magnate, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. In a remarkable act of largesse, this body agreed to meet the entire cost of the project — €55 million.

Chipperfield’s generative sketch.

Chipperfield’s generative sketch.

The competition was held as recently as 2007, allowing a window of less than two years in which to build a very high-specification structure of 2,800sq m. In such a testing context it is easy to see why the Chipperfield scheme — a characteristic exercise in extreme formal reduction — might hold particular appeal for the jury. Indeed, the project’s press-release is accompanied by a back-of-an-envelope thumbnail plan that all but encapsulates the design’s key architectural moves in a single drawing. It is a sketch that reminded me of its author’s history working at Foster Associates in the early eighties, the impulse to boil a project down to an immediately apprehensible esquisse being one that Chipperfield’s former employer famously shares. The obvious danger of such a strategy is that, in the pursuit of a singular idea, the generative diagram gets reduced to the point where it strangles the scheme at birth — an accusation that one could certainly level at a number of Foster projects. With the Chipperfield buildings I have visited, I have never felt that conflict — reduced as they are, the practice’s projects always seem to be gauged with sensitivity to the functions that they serve. The Folkwang is no exception: the completed building is a tribute to the pertinence of that initial diagram.

The fundamental move on which the project is predicated is the distribution of the public programme on a single level. The 1960 building — itself a single-storey structure — occupies the southernmost third of an urban block and Chipperfield has effectively filled out the remainder. His intervention comprises a series of pavilion-like volumes, the scale, siting and tectonic elaboration of which all serve to cultivate a sympathetic relationship to the host structure. As with the old building they are configured around a system of courtyards with the effect that the whole interior takes on an expansive, mat-like quality, with connections to the city beyond being made only very selectively. Given that the building’s principal address is to the unprepossessing four-lane Bismarckstrasse, it is debatable how much of a relationship one might want to forge with the outside world. Nonetheless, it is telling that when the building does allow us views out, those everyday scenes appear charged with an almost exotic sense of dislocation. In a disquieting way the experience puts one in mind of looking down on earth from heaven.

The entrance courtyard.

Credit: Christian Richters

The entrance courtyard.

That effect is partly attributable to a change of ground level of over 4m from one end of the site to the other. In response, the architect has raised his pavilions on a podium, the interior of which is largely given over to parking. Inevitably, the building assumes a grander, almost acropolis-like bearing at the end where the podium is at its highest and particularly fortuitously, this happens to be the end that faces the city centre. The architect has therefore been able to give the complex a new, suitably scaled entrance in the form of a broad flight of steps that addresses the route by which most visitors will approach.

On first sight, the building suggest a character rather closer to that of its architect’s American work than his European projects. The distinction is a tectonic one: the US buildings are clad, whereas the European ones — certainly those of a civic function — have tended to embrace a monolithic articulation. Chipperfield has explained the split as a pragmatic response to the capabilities of the US construction industry, so it comes as a surprise to find that the Essen pavilions have been faced in flush-mounted panels of recycled glass. I am not sure that it is the most alluring treatment — I wondered at first if I was looking at fibreglass — but it does establish a close relationship with the thin stone cladding of the older building. As with all the key design choices, a notion that the two buildings might contribute to a single architectural idea has been the guiding principle.

The building’s four courtyards are never enclosed by the walls of the pavilions directly but rather by a lower, cloister-like structure which weaves between them. This is a steel-framed assembly of a strongly Miesian flavour, the bays of which are ordinarily closed from top to bottom by an enormous expanse of glass. However, in the entrance courtyard, the structure has been expressed in its naked form, carrying across the top of the steps that rise up from Bismarckstrasse as an open colonnade.

View from the gallery to the street.

Credit: Christian Richters

View from the gallery to the street.

This first courtyard — the only one that is publicly accessible — is a terrific space. A restaurant opens out down one side and we can see the inevitable Walther Koenig bookshop through the other. Chipperfield recalls that when he first visited the site, he was struck by the fact he could see paintings on the walls of the 1960 building from his passing taxi. This new entrance courtyard retains at least something of that immediacy, sparing us the the dubious pleasure of an architecturally bombastic showpiece lobby in favour of a direct sightline into the special exhibition hall at its far end. That space — a quite magnificent column-free volume of 1,400sq m — is one of three new gallery suites, each of which is housed in its own pavilion and offers a distinct exhibition environment. One accommodates post-1945 painting and sculpture in an enfilade of top-lit rooms, while the third is a black-box environment, designed to accommodate the Folkwang’s substantial holdings of graphic art and photography. They are generic spaces but more than fit for purpose — the work on the walls looks great.

By all accounts, the procurement process was a battle, with Chipperfield’s office given a less central role than it would have cared for and a succession of value engineering proposals being mooted in an attempt to keep the project within budget. Among the more alarming was the idea that concrete columns might be introduced, allowing the steel structure of the cloister to be slimmed down and serve merely as a means of framing the glazing. The damage to the project of implementing such a proposal would have been measurable not only in its muddying of the building’s pure structural ontology but also in the diminution of the wonderful transparency the circulation spaces thankfully still enjoy. Indeed the fact that the building has been able to survive the attentions of the value engineers essentially unscathed is perhaps the ultimate testament to the precision with which Chipperfield’s original diagram was framed.

So what is my beef? Well, I guess it is akin to the complaint of the man who buys a ticket to see Houdini only for the magician to slip his chains within a moment of hitting the water: it would have been nice to see more of a struggle. The project really does feel like it was authored in that first drawing, to the point that no further opportunity for artistic risk-taking remained. The skill and professionalism of its realisation are self-evident but after projects such as the San Michele Cemetery and the Museum of Literature, this stripped podium and colonnade form-language is one with which the office is very familiar. It is hardly a damning accusation but the Folkwang did strike me as Chipperfield at his most blithe.

If I raise the issue, it is because the Neues Museum suggested what an extraordinary architect he can be when his impulse to simplification meets sufficient resistance. If ever there was a project that couldn’t be dispensed with by a diagram, that surely was it — a vast compendium of local decisions which over 12 long years its architect directed towards a common purpose. Doubtless at the end of Chipperfield’s career that project will still be viewed as a special case. Nonetheless, it is tempting to imagine what might happen if he permitted something of the feeling for sustained improvisation that informed the Neues Museum to now permeate his new-build work.

I can’t think of an office in the world that is currently producing such a volume of excellent buildings as David Chipperfield Architects, an extraordinary achievement and perhaps one that relies on maintaining a strongly demarcated collaborative structure. The practice is clearly a smooth running machine. The Museum Folkwang does, however, suggest some of the dangers of that facility. After all the triumphs and tributes of the past six months, it might be a good moment to challenge it.

Original print headline - After the party

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