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Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects in collaboration with Julian Harrap Architects

[STIRLING SHORTLIST 2010 in detail]: David Chipperfield restores form and figure to this 19th-century museum bombed in World War II

‘Only the ignorant hate art,’ it reads (in German) across the west facade of the Neues Museum in Berlin. I’m putting my head on the line by confessing to be one of the only people in the whole of Western architecture who didn’t immediately fall head over heels in love with David Chipperfield Architects’ awesome restoration of the 19th-century museum.

Perverse, I know. It’s an utterly consummate project: beautiful, austere, powerfully controlled and jaw-droppingly detailed. It’s entirely itself, yet it seamlessly incorporates the most beautiful and moving conservation work ever. I’ve argued for hours with architects and non-architects, who have all been knocked for six, and I concede all their points.

It’s an utterly consummate project: beautiful, austere, powerfully controlled and jaw-droppingly detailed

The Neues is one of the world’s greatest museums, an epoch-busting building that holds a focused mirror up to our own age, heightening and defining all our cultural and critical beliefs. That’s what made me uncomfortable: late capitalism just is very smug. That absolute aesthetic/commercial certainty, faintly troubling when minimalists first took Cistercian purities to clothes shops and restaurants, has flowered into one of the greatest cultural statements of our age.

This is the project minimalism was waiting for: the complete rebuilding of a vast, ruined neo-classical museum, bombed by the allies in 1944 and in the heart of Museum Island in Berlin, where stripped neo-classicism must raise a frisson.

An epoch-busting building that holds a focused mirror up to our own age

Chipperfield’s ‘re-establishment of form and figure’, but using plainer forms, is fused with Julian Harrap Architects’ exquisite, moving conservation work; ‘an extraordinarily democratic process,’ says Harrap. The new follows the diagonal bombing swathe; each wall – from total ruin to virtually untouched – gives ‘context to every fragment of memory’ and re-establishes a controlled enfilade.

Most overtly modern is the new, three-level box in the southern courtyard, which allows varied circulation and spaces on each level: vault, room, balcony. And it all centres round the awesome re-working of the staircase court and doorway – the conceptual heart of the building – a perfectly preserved 19th-century gallery on one side, a hugely potent exhibit on the other, framed in a stripped ceremonial staircase that can’t help but speak of Albert Speer. 

This is astonishing architecture, and my faint, stubborn discomfort is all to do with its success. That consummate conservation feels subsidiary to the confident, totalising, stripped neo-classical whole, and here that feels unsettling, suggesting an end to Berlin’s post-war focus of liberalism and doubt. More flippantly, I can’t shake the impression those exquisite display cases – minimal, precious, perfectly lit – give me of a vast jewellers or the lobby of the world’s most jaw-droppingly cool hotel. But this is indeed Chipperfield with his finger on the pulse of what Western culture has become.

…Suggesting an end to Berlin’s post-war focus of liberalism and doubt

Before he visited the museum, critic Charles Jencks wondered if it was post-modern. He was probably reading the strength and coherence of its powerful cultural statement, but critical self-irony seems absent here. The Neues Museum has, like a powerful, minimal boa constrictor, swallowed neo-classicism, inspired and moving conservation, the epic history of Berlin, and come up minimalism just the same – the cultural victor of our age.

Kester Rattenbury, architecture critic

Q&A David Chipperfield, David Chipperfield Architects

Are you surprised that three museums are on this year’s shortlist?
Not really. It seems fairly inevitable that the Stirling Prize list should lean towards public buildings, and museums are the public buildings that offer architects the opportunity to experiment.

Describe your approach to restoring the Neues Museum.
Our approach was motivated by our desire to protect and repair the remains, to create a comprehensible setting and to reconnect the parts back into an architectural whole. The new and the old reinforce each other; not in a desire for contrast, but in a search for continuity. We have created a new building from the remains of the old, not celebrating or hiding its history, but including it.

How much of the project was about repairing the original fabric and how much about updating the museum for the 21st century?
As we did not want to introduce false walls and false ceilings, there could be no clear, comprehensive technical strategy about the building as a whole, but rather a room-by-room concept, depending on the state of the room. In some there was no roof, so services could be integrated into the new ceiling; in others the historic ceiling simply couldn’t be used for services.

What lessons from your previous museum and gallery projects did you bring to the Neues Museum?
This was a unique project that occupied us for 11 years. While it seemed at times to be a different experience to all other projects, in fact it involved all issues typical of others – but to an extreme level.

How can architects and conservation architects collaborate successfully
on building projects?

The collaboration between my office and Julian Harrap Architects was very constructive and enjoyable. As we led the project, Julian was free to direct and advise us, not only on the works to the historic fabric, but also on the project as a whole. This organisation gave us a very integrated process. I suspect Julian may have done some things differently, as might we, but I think the combined approach resulted in a stronger project. Given the sensitivity of the project and the willingness of the client to articulate ideas, the project developed through discussion and debate, and Julian’s participation was critical.

Over 15 years, your practice has racked up five Stirling Prize nominations and one win. Why has it been so successful?
I don’t know. We try to run a studio that gives importance to both the professional procedures and the development of ideas. It goes without saying that we don’t always succeed.

Architect David Chipperfield Architects in collaboration with Julian Harrap Architects
Location Berlin, Germany
Floor area 20,500m2
Cost 200 million euros
Start on site 2003
Contract duration 12 years
Form of procurement Competition
Cost per m² 6,340 euros (£5,400)
Client Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Structural engineer Ingenieurgruppe Bauen
Services engineer Heating, ventilation and sanitary: Jaeger, Mornhinweg + Partner Ingenieurgesellschaft.
Electrical and security: Kunst und Museumsschutz Beratungs und Planungs GmbH
Quantity surveyor Nanna Fütterer
Project manager Ernst & Young Real Estate
CDM coordinator GSU GmbH

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