David Chipperfield Architects' Neues Museum, Berlin
David Chipperfield Architects has undertaken a stunningly courageous transformation of Berlin’s ruined Neues Museum
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the Guardian at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport and leafed through to the picture I had been morbidly looking forward to studying for the past 24 hours: that of the smouldering remains of the hotel in OMA’s China Central Television (CCTV) complex. The structure appeared blackened but essentially intact, and one’s thoughts soon turned to the different scenarios that might unfold.
Demolition was surely still a likelihood, raising the question of whether OMA’s design would then be reconstructed, or if something quite other might be built on the site. But if the primary structure did prove sound, then perhaps it would just be a matter of replacing the cladding and internal finishes. Three options then, with different practical and artistic implications but united in a common goal: to wipe away all memory of the calamity that the building has suffered.
But wait. Let us, for a moment, entertain a fourth option — one that might be dismissed out of hand as fanciful were it not for the fact that it can claim such a substantial pedigree. It is this: those parts of the existing structure that prove stable are retained while those that do not are, in so far as possible, consolidated; where fabric is damaged beyond repair, it is replaced with work that is expressly identified as a subsequent addition, but otherwise no attempt is made to conceal the effects of damage.
Why does such a strategy strike us as ludicrous? It is, after all, entirely in line with the 1964 International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (the Venice Charter), and indeed with the manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings penned by William Morris and published in 1877. At the time of the fire, the CCTV hotel was of course not even a completed building, let alone an ancient one, but if it were to have been destroyed after 100 years of use, one wonders whether the proposal would sound any more sane. No, the germane issue is not the length of time that has elapsed between construction and destruction, but the industrialised nature of the building’s fabric.
Much of the current thinking about best practice in conservation can be traced back to the position set out by John Ruskin in The Lamp of Memory (1849). A fierce opponent of all attempts at “restoration”, he advised: “Do not let us deceive ourselves…it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture… That spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman can never be recalled… And as for direct and simple copying, it is palpably impossible. What copying can there be of surfaces that have been worn half an inch down? The whole finish of the work was in the half inch that is gone.”
Craftsmanship and decay: in demanding acknowledgement of the part that these two operations play in shaping any building’s identity, Ruskin radically reframed our understanding of architectural value. The architect’s vision was no longer the only — indeed perhaps not even the pre-eminent — determinant of a building’s worth. Time, as embodied both in the performances of those that made the building and in the history of that work’s undoing, was elevated to the status of a co-author. One way in which the history of modernism can be read is as an attempt by architects to reclaim the primacy that Ruskin sought to deny them.
If the notion of reconstructing the CCTV hotel on Ruskinian principles strikes us as bizarre, it is precisely because its architecture so determinedly denies the passage of time. The role assigned to those who made the building was not that of the creative artisan but rather the dutiful technician. Its fabric was conceived not as a register of wear and weathering but rather as an assembly of imperishably hygienic surfaces.
These thoughts were lent an added frame of reference by the reason for my visit to Berlin. I was there to see the long awaited refurbishment of Friedrich Stüler’s Neues Museum (New Museum), a building which was still under construction when Ruskin published The Lamp of Memory — it was completed in 1855 — but which has lain derelict since it was hit by allied bombing during the second world war.
The second of five museums to be built on Berlin’s Museum Island — the first was Schinkel’s adjacent Altes Museum (Old Museum) — it was designed to accommodate a collection of ethnographic and archaeological holdings. A refurbishment of Stüler’s building was embarked on in 1986 — at which point it still lay within the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) — but was soon aborted. Only with the advent of German reunification was the political will found to complete the task.
Even so, the project’s subsequent journey has been far from smooth. A competition held in 1994 asked entrants to address the building’s refurbishment in tandem with developing a masterplan for the whole island. The latter challenge was in many respects no less daunting than the former. The five institutions were conceived at a time when visitor numbers were limited — to gain admission to the Neues Museum, visitors originally had to ring a doorbell — so adapting the site to the pressures of mass tourism would demand a comprehensive restructuring of the public circulation.
The jury awarded first prize to Giorgio Grassi, only for the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (National Museums of Berlin) to reject its choice. Its preference was for the altogether more invasive — and staggeringly obnoxious — fourth-placed scheme by Frank Gehry. The subsequent Froschmäusekrieg was only resolved three years later by holding a second competition. It was open to the five firms that had been placed top in the earlier contest, but this time it related solely to the refurbishment of the Neues Museum. David Chipperfield Architects, the runner-up in 1994, was declared the winner.
The practice’s approach to the ruined structure had shifted significantly in the interim. Its 1994 competition text opens with a clear declaration of intent: “Our investigations confirmed our intuitive feeling that the Neues Museum should be restored and that this restoration should be as complete and authentic as possible.” Alongside Stüler’s building it proposed a large, fully glazed volume that would serve as a visitor reception area for the entire Museum Island complex, the constituent buildings of which would be linked by bridges. The scheme represented a quintessentially modernist gambit. By removing all trace of damage, Stüler’s authorship of the Neues Museum would be re-established, while what was left of the programme would be channelled into a new building that could be expressly Chipperfield’s own. Needless to say, this would be a thing of characteristic perfection and irreducibility. Time, in short, would be defeated.
By polar contrast, the realised scheme entirely abandons the idea that the Neues Museum could have been returned to its original form. Rather than embarking on the comprehensive restoration it originally envisaged, the practice and its principal collaborator, conservation architect Julian Harrap, has defined the task strictly as one of repair. The seeming modesty of that ambition is belied by the project’s budget of €233 million (£210 million) and by the fact that it has taken over five years to realise, but even those figures scarcely prepare one for the astounding intricacy of what has been achieved.
Stüler’s interiors were highly decorated and fantastically varied, and their language was often tailored to the artefacts they were designed to house. Quasi-Grecian, Egyptian and Pompeian rooms are joined by others of a more boldly contemporary character, notably on the top floor which features a structure of exposed cast iron. None of the rooms has survived intact, and many have been very heavily damaged indeed. As a rule, the architects have retained what fragments they can without embarking on an attempt to make the damage good. The methodology adopted is more sophisticated than one of simply presenting fragments in their raw state: an attempt has been made to draw them back into a considered composition in which the spatial and volumetric qualities of Stüler’s architecture can again be read.
What this has meant in practice varies dramatically from room to room. Where areas of fresco have been lost, the stucco has not been reinstated but the exposed bricks have been colour-washed to soften the contrast with the adjoining paintwork. Hollow terracotta pot domes have been repaired and in places plastered — the finish has then been scored to re-establish the geometry of lost decoration - and broken architraves have been made whole by new joinery that offers an abstracted version of the old. These judgments — of which there are hundreds — have all been made on a case-by-case basis, often employing Photoshop studies as a means of testing the relative tonal values of new and old surfaces. All this represents a sensibility that might be thought of more naturally as that of a painter rather than an architect, but Chipperfield and Harrap have pursued their goal unstintingly — walking around this very substantial building, one senses their engagement with every square inch.
Elsewhere, more demonstratively modern interventions have been made. The building’s central stair hall was destroyed in its entirety. Its once lavishly frescoed walls have been repaired but left in bare brick, and have been enclosed by a new roof — a massive assembly of dark stained oak trusses. This is manifestly a piece of 21st century work but its material, geometry and weight all serve to broker a relationship with the existing fabric that is one of synthesis rather than counterpoint.
The principal challenge presented by the space was how to replace Stüler’s stair. Chipperfield’s worked for over a year to develop alternatives, only to conclude that the manner in which the original configuration interacted with the still extant window openings made its reinstatement irresistible. What the practice has put back, however, is not a copy but rather a ghost of the lost form. It has been constructed with absolute mastery in precast concrete and is imbued with all the melancholic monumentality of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture.
The same material — used both in polished and sand-blasted form — has been employed throughout the project as a “filler” wherever substantial parts of the original fabric have been lost. It appears again in one of the building’s two internal courtyards. Here, Stüler’s work — a particularly ripe fantasy on Egyptian themes — had again been completely obliterated. The highly reduced arrangement of concrete posts and lintels that has replaced it supports a table-like gallery at first floor level and a glazed roof two storeys above. The structure’s elemental character perhaps suggests something of the work that has gone, but the reference that strikes one more immediately is to the celebrated design for the loggia of a mausoleum proposed by Friedrich Gilly in the 1790s. Gilly built little and died at the age of 27, but his influence on the German architecture of the early 19th century was enormous. He was Schinkel’s tutor, as Schinkel was Stüler’s. One way in which Chipperfield’s work in the Egyptian Court can be read is as an acknowledgement of the lineage of the German romantic-classicism from which the Neues Museum emerged.
The two most significant injuries that the building suffered were the complete destruction of the north-west wing and a tower that lies to the south-east. Chipperfield’s has again reinstated these as paraphrases of what has been lost, stripped of all decoration but respecting the original massing and window proportions. Their external elevations are in reclaimed brick but finished in a thin mortar slurry rather than the render that covers the older fabric. (They share this treatment with the Am Kupfergraben 10 gallery, which the practice built immediately opposite across the River Spree a couple of years ago).
Internally, the new north-west wing offers a stack of three long galleries, each lined with quite enormous panels of precast concrete. The tower is something else: an intimate, square-planned room, the exposed brick walls of which gently morph into a truncated dome. It is a space as memorable as any conceived by Stüler, and when the Neues Museum reopens to the public in September, it is here that visitors will find the prize exhibit: the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.
Although this project is now complete, Chipperfield’s involvement with Museum Island continues. In 1998, it was appointed as masterplanner for the whole site, and the firm will now realise a new entrance facility for the complex on land due west of the Neues. The design is very different from its 1994 proposal, being an extension of the language of concrete trabeations that it has road-tested in the Egyptian Court. The new masterplan also abandons the idea of linking the five museums by bridge. Now, the principal circulation is to be consigned below ground — a strategy the configuration of the Neues Museum’s basement level prefigures.
All this we can look forward to, but for now we have a building which — while very different from the one Stüler designed — is once again a very great work of architecture. The approach the practice has adopted is not without precedent. Hans Döllgast’s work in postwar Munich, notably his radical 1957 reconstruction of the bomb-damaged Alte Pinakothek, suggests itself as a particular point of comparison. However, in terms of scale and complexity, the remodelling of the Neues Museum really is without peer.
The project can, I believe, be fairly claimed as the ultimate embodiment of the principles Ruskin set out in The Lamp of Memory 160 years ago. That it should be the work of an architect who we might once have blithely labelled an unequivocal modernist is extraordinary. The commission has demanded great courage and humility on Chipperfield’s part. He has met that challenge and more: he has delivered his masterpiece.
East wing section
Client Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbestiz, Architect David Chipperfield Architects, Restoration architect Julian Harrap Architects, Consultant Pro Denkmal, QS Nanna Fütterer, Site supervision Lubic & Woehrlin, Project manager Ernst & Young Real Estate, Structural engineer Bauen, Heating, ventilation & sanitary engineer Jaeger Mornhinweg, Electrical & security engineer Kunst & Museumsschutz Beratungs & Planungs, Lighting Kardorff Ingenieure Lichtplanung, Building physics Ingenieurbüro Axel C Rahn, Landscape architect Levin Monsigny
To read more Building Studies click here