The architect’s new gallery is a magnificent gateway to Berlin’s Museum Island, combining the serenity of a classical colonnade with the logistical complexity of a tube station, writes Ike Ijeh
Of all David Chipperfield’s many buildings, it is arguably the German contingent for which he has received greatest acclaim. Five of his German projects have been nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize, with Marbach’s stellar Museum of Modern Literature generating his only win (thus far) in 2007. Of these five projects, three have been cultural works, with his heroic rebuilding and restoration of Berlin’s war-damaged Neues (New) Museum perhaps the most celebrated. And now exactly 10 years after the Neues Museum reopened, Chipperfield has extended his German cultural portfolio yet again with a new museum just next door.
The 10,900sq m, £120m James Simon Galerie officially opens this month and forms a new entrance building to Berlin’s extraordinary Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, one of the most remarkable museum complexes in Europe. It is named after a renowned 19th-century German-Jewish philanthropist and patron of Berlin arts, whose death in 1932 shortly before the brutal Nazi uprising of the following year acts as a poignant metaphor for the end of the era of artistic enlightenment that defined the Weimar Republic. The Museumsinsel itself is a city centre island bound by the River Spree to the east, the Spree Canal to the west and south and dissected by the city’s principal Unter den Linden highway. It previously contained five museums and galleries, with James Simon now adding a sixth.
“You can almost think of it like a tube station, in as much as it provides transitional circulation spaces between infrastructure nodes”
The seventh and final institution will open next year in the imposing Humbolt Forum, an ambitious reconstruction of the Prussian-era Berlin Palace. Virtually destroyed by Allied bombing during the liberation of Germany at the end of the Second World War, the palace was finally and controversially demolished in 2009 and is now set to reopen as a museum under the stewardship of former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, poached from the London institution in 2015 shortly after overseeing Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre extension.
The Museumsinsel is one of Berlin’s three Unesco World Heritage Sites and could be described as a German neo-classical Acropolis. It contains an extraordinary ensemble of sepulchral 19th-century neo-classical buildings, led by Karl Schinkel’s Greek Revival Altes (Old) Museum, started in the same year – 1823 – as its stylistic twin, the much larger British Museum. The Neues Museum is located just to the north, and part of the aim of its reconstruction was not only to restore the fabric but to create a new gateway for the entire complex, rationalising its haphazard layout.
“Museum Island is a remarkable set of buildings,” Chipperfield explains, “but each one has its own entrance and the entrances all face in different directions. Also, each building is configured as an individual object monument more concerned with itself than the overall whole.
Therefore the initial idea was to configure Neues as a new entrance for the entire site. But due to infrastructural and contextual challenges related to access, levels, permeability and orientation this was never really realised and it became clear another solution was needed.”
The result is the James Simon Galerie which acts as the new entrance building for the entire site. As such, it contains all the perfunctory accoutrements of a modern museum. These include a vast 650sq m temporary exhibition space, a sunken 300-seat auditorium, ticketing area (unlike in the UK, German national museums are not free to enter), a bookshop, cafe and restaurant.
But what is far more significant contextually and urbanistically is its role as an architectural gateway to, and mediator between, the various buildings on the site. Accordingly, not only does it provide access to the Neues Museum, via a new “Archaeological Promenade”, but it also creates a new direct entrance to the Pergamon Museum, which sits just to its north. Eventually, a new lower-level public link will connect all of the island’s institutions (apart from the Humbolt Forum, which sits on the other side of Unter den Linden), with the James Simon Galerie forming the first point on this route.
“You can almost think of it like a tube station,” explains Chipperfield, “in as much as it provides transitional circulation spaces between infrastructure nodes. It also reflects modern trends in curatorship – previously museums were closed boxes but now they’re much more dynamic and interactive. Finally, it learns the lessons of the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, which has struggled as it provides one single entry point for the entire museum. While the new gallery is a gateway, it does not replace the retained entrances of neighbouring buildings but works in conjunction with them.”
Making an entrance
So how then does the new building meet this challenging role of acting as an urban unifier of its surroundings while retaining its own architectural identity? It first does so by making the most of its dramatic canalside location. Raised on a high, narrow plateau between the Spree Canal and the rear facade of the Neues Museum, the gallery is expressed as a long rectilinear pavilion set at the summit of a monumental triple-tier flight of steps and draped in an exquisite concrete colonnade.
The flight of steps leads up to the main entrance or, to one side, a long terrace formed in the gap between the gallery and canal. With the former’s footprint being cast at an askew angle to the latter, the terrace becomes wider as it snakes alongside the canal. The entire building is encased in a precast concrete formed from a special aggregate mix of reconstituted stone, local limestone and marble which is then hand-sand- blasted to provide a whitewashed, almost celestial quality.
Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns and manages the Museum Island, describes the new building as a “contemporary keystone, an architectural counterpoint to the five historical buildings of the Museumsinsel”. With its whitewashed surfaces contrasting against the dark tones of neighbouring buildings and the lightness of its tall, narrow proportions set against the heavier, squatter Prussian classicism of Neues and the Pergamon, this is undoubtedly the case. Equally, in the use of a narrow colonnade, Chipperfield has recycled his favoured geometric and stylistic device, as used to such stirring effect on the Marbach museum.
But make no mistake, contemporary or not, recycled or not, the James Simon Galerie is a superlative work of architecture that is so forensically attuned to its historic context that it appears to grow organically from its neighbouring canal, spaces and monuments like a slender young branch springing from an ancient tree trunk.
The sweeping flight of steps plays a big role in achieving this, dramatising the threshold between public realm and museum quarter and allowing the former to swoop right into and around the building by means of the cafe terrace.
One might have preferred this terrace to optimise its dramatic, elevated position against the Spree by being configured more as a public square that formed the principal entrance to the gallery and thereby the entire island. This might have more vividly reflected the Ancient Greek “agora” principle of a public gathering place surrounded by civic buildings, and it might also have more powerfully expressed the public gateway role the new gallery seeks to fulfil. But nonetheless, the realised arrangement between steps, terrace and entrance still convinces as an entrance thresh- old and is effective in integrating the building into its context.
What plays an even bigger role in achieving this are the sumptuous colonnades, which allow the building to bleed into its surroundings. The main colonnade wraps around two sides of the new gallery and abuts directly onto one of the mighty twin porticoes of the massive Pergamon Museum, thereby appearing to extend from it like an elegant side wing. And at the base of the flight of stairs a second colonnade runs directly into the neo-classical colonnade of the Neues building, their deliberately matching heights, rhythm and proportions physically fusing the two together as if bound by a lock.
While Chipperfield concedes the colonnades are “essentially a classical device” he argues that they are “stripped and minimalist” and, by extension, contemporary in their expression. But their stylistic loyalties barely matter – what does is the consummate skill with which they encourage public realm to percolate into the building and the almost spine-tingling sculptural purity and simplicity they lend to the overall building form.
Cold War chic
Inside, one is faced with all the surgical minimalism one has come to expect of a Chipperfield building. The entrance foyers reveals bare expanses of exposed concrete walls soaked in sunlight from skylight strips above. A lower and upper foyer negotiate the connections to the Neues and Pergamon museums and they are linked by a wide staircase that cuts into the building plan like a monolithic concrete shaft.
Throughout, large expanses of glazing plunge surrounding views deep into the interior and constantly and wisely ground visitors in an awareness of their historic surroundings.
The two principal interiors from a curatorial point of view are the auditorium and temporary exhibition space, both on lower levels. The auditorium is neatly fitted in beneath the external flight of stairs and its concrete severity is softened by a series of undulating walnut ceiling panels. But best of all is the vast temporary exhibition space, a caustic, cavernous and aggressively angular double-height void whose monochrome tones and slatted, translucent ceiling bristle with the cool, Cold War chic of a 1970s espionage thriller. Most surprising is the bookshop, a surprisingly warm interior with walnut shelving and fixtures throughout, and the urbane, cultivated intimacy of a private club.
But it is in its external role that the James Simon Galerie truly excels. So much so that it begs the question, does a rich, historic context bring out the best in Chipperfield, acting as a decorative counterfoil to his stripped minimalist style? When unconstrained by context, his cultural works tends to veer towards cold sterility – elements to be found in his Turner Margate gallery and, in full militaristic mode, his Hepworth Wakefield.
But faced here with the ornamental backdrop of some of Germany’s finest neo-classical buildings, Chipperfield has crafted a masterful response whose very restraint and simplicity amplifies the collective impact of the historic ensemble. By maximising minimalism, Chipperfield has successfully walked the tightrope between contemporary and conservation architecture.
- Client: Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation
- Architect: David Chipperfield Architects
- Structural engineer: IGB Ingenieurgruppe Bauen
- Services engineer: Innius Dö
- Quantity surveyor: Christine Kappei