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Acropolis-on-Spree: Chipperfield’s James Simon Galerie in Berlin completes


David Chipperfield Architects’ new central entrance to Berlin’s Museum Island, the James Simon Galerie, opens its doors to the public in two weeks’ time

David Chipperfield Architects’s (DCA’s) new James Simon Galerie in Berlin is a building of long perspectives – architectural, temporal and cultural.

As you approach, the most prominent element of the new 10,900m² building is its white concrete colonnade on a massive stone base, which recedes like a De Chirico. It appears deceptively slight and elongated besides the massive grey stones of the pockmarked Pergamon Museum it backs onto, currently under restoration.

Functionally the Galerie forms the new gateway to the cluster of state museums on Berlin’s ‘Museum Island’, which is encircled by the River Spree and Kupfergraben canal. It is the crux of a masterplan for Museum Island that DCA developed in 1999.

04 jsg uz dca

04 jsg uz dca

In addition to the Pergamon, the ensemble includes the Neues Museum – its rebuilding completed by DCA in 2009 – and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum. Together their massed Neoclassical forms were meant to invoke the idea of the island as a ‘cultural Acropolis’ as originally envisaged by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

In its range and quality of collections, it’s like having the British Museum, V&A and part of the National Gallery all within spitting distance and together they attract millions of tourists each year.

Among the objects on display, are cultural treasures including the Pergamon Altar and the Bust of Nefertiti. The latter was a gift from the collector James Simon, after whom the new gallery is named. He died in 1932 and was the most prominent of the many Jewish patrons of the state museums in the early 20th century, donating artefacts that together would be enough to fill six galleries. This historical perspective encapsulated in the new gallery’s name thus bears witness to Simon and the many Jewish patrons whose names were suppressed during the Nazi era and whose crucial role in building the state collections has not previously been fully acknowledged.

09 jsg uz dca

09 jsg uz dca

The millions of visitors had been poorly served in terms of basic visitor service functions: space for ticketing was inadequate, cloakrooms, toilets, lockers and a museum shop. There was also no auditorium nor separate temporary gallery to support a more flexible, interpretive cultural programme. ‘It was a long shopping list,’ says David Chipperfield when asked about the original brief. In addition, the project had to find a way to connect all the museums so these services could be centralised at one entrance point.

But beyond the programme of servicing and connecting, the aim was also ‘to give Museum Island an address’ – and design a building that could also function on occasion as a cultural destination in itself. ‘There was always the sense that when the lights of Museum Island go off, here they should stay on,’ says Chipperfield. 

The building’s design therefore had to be highly functional but also to a degree representational: a new front door and face to Museum Island.

DCA made two key moves. Firstly it connected the main museums through their basement levels, utilising space previously used for storage to create a route – an ‘archaeological promenade’ – which will incrementally open over the next decade.

Secondly, most visitor facilities were ‘suppressed’ – as Chipperfield terms it ­­– into the new building’s lower levels.

12 jsg uz dca

12 jsg uz dca

Thus at basement level is a new auditorium, temporary exhibition and orientation galleries – the latter with a permanent interpretive display designed by Duncan McCauley Architects – which will eventually be connected to the ‘archaeological promenade’.

Above, a mezzanine floor beneath the main entrance foyer accommodates the museum shop, cloakroom, toilets and lockers.

Together these two levels contribute to creating ‘the built topogaphy’ – another Chipperfield term – of a massive podium base, above which the distinctive face of the porticoed upper level sits prominently, like an extruded version of the Acropolis’s Propylaea entrance, to the left of a monumental flight of entrance steps to the upper main entrance. To the right a ground-floor colonnade picks up the line of that which encircles the Neues Museum, while presenting a screen to a secondary entrance at ground floor level.

Notable in this literal ’building of the site’ is how the three flights of steps leading to the upper entrance sit over the 300-seater auditorium lying directly beneath – the waves of its walnut ceiling echoing the flow of steps above:, contrasting with its walls of cast concrete acoustic panels. 

13 jsg bs bbr

13 jsg bs bbr

A generous lofty foyer space greets you at the upper level entrance and, while there are desks for information and tickets visible ahead, as well as a long, thin spit of café space running alongside, most of the upper floor is functionless in the strict sense.

‘The idea was to keep much of this level relatively purposeless,’ says Chipperfield using the term that Walter Pichler and Hans Hollein invented in the 1960s as the inverse of functionalism. The space is light-filled and permeable to the exterior, in particular the stoa-like terrace under the pilastered colonnade – and all spaces here are accessible to the public to visit without tickets, and can be used for events and openings in the evening.

This is both free space but loaded, representational space, too: ‘ceremonial’ as Richard Sennett describes it in a conversation with Chipperfield. Some ‘gestures’ jar as sheer stage set – witness the steps that lead down to the canal which are not designed ever to be used. The stripped Neoclassical colonnade inevitably brings to mind comparisons with Nazi architecture ­– just as at Chipperfield’s Marbach Library. But here, in fact, Chipperfield’s original 2006 proposal for a series of glass boxes was redesigned after criticism – Heinrich Wefing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describing it as ’ambivalent’ and like ’a glorified public toilet’ – that it did not pick up more on architectural motifs of the buildings around. In any case, the colonnade has a delicacy and lightness that is the opposite in spirit to authoritarian. A more informing spirit is the podium and upper pavilion of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, which Chipperfield is currently restoring across the city.

Everywhere finishes are of exceptional quality: stone, bronze, leather, copper and most strikingly, a wall of panels glazed with wafer-thin marble, that gives a milky, limpid light to the ticketing desks. Down in the base, materials are richer and darker but no less fine, with the walnut of the auditorium repeated in the fit-out of the cloakrooms and museum shop. The project is a veritable symphony of fine materials. And while the sheer volume of material and concrete used suggests little attempt has been made to mitigate the embodied carbon footprint of its making, this is certainly a building built to last.

Overall, while there is a sense of grandeur in the spaces, there is also a warmth, richness and elegance – with beautiful control in material juxtaposition that also has Miesian echoes. As a new main entrance to Museum Island, it will at first only provide access to the Pergamon and Neues Museum, until the basement ’archeaological promenade’ is connected. While in the long term there will also be other entrances to some of the Museums, most notably the Pergamon – Chipperfield says they learnt from the mistake of the Louvre pyramid, which, concentrating access entirely at one point feels, for all its lofty volume, to be potentially too small.

The volumes of visitors could be huge – and one wonders how it will function when it’s all connected up. It’s a building that on balance appears constructed more to frame the stately De Chirico-like progress of a few figures in space and not the massive museum groups that will inevitably follow. 

444 06 d p1 s 500 copy

444 06 d p1 s 500 copy

Entrance foyer/terrace level plan

Architect’s view

The James Simon Galerie resolves logistical and infrastructural issues for the museum complex, and also fulfils an architectural vision for the Museum Island. This highly symbolic location encouraged us to find a reading of the building that transcends its practical functions, becoming defined instead by its general formal characteristics and a looser idea of purpose.

David Chipperfield, founder, David Chipperfield Architects

The James Simon Galerie celebrates the accessibility of the museums and the treasures they hold. It extends the public urban realm into the heart of the Museum Island, inviting passers-by to take a stroll and generating a new spatial relationship between the museums and the city. With colonnades, grand staircases and built topography, the new architecture adopts well-established themes of the Museum Island.

Alexander Schwarz, partner and design director, David Chipperfield Architects Berlin

Ch jsg section 2

Ch jsg section 2


Client’s view

The James-Simon-Galerie is more than just a gateway to the Museum Island, and much more than just an urgently needed service building. David Chipperfield’s building is a contemporary keystone, an architectural counterpoint to the five historical buildings of the island. David Chipperfield is leading it into the 21st century. With this building, he challenges us to make the James Simon Galerie a place in which the magnificent collections can be reinterpreted, and also confronted with the intellectually and aesthetically pressing questions of our times.

Hermann Parzinger, president, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)

We are delighted to welcome our visitors to the Museum Island at this central entry and service building, the James Simon Galerie. The architecture invites us to linger: the large, outdoor staircase will become the ‘Spanish Steps’ of Berlin, where locals can meet visitors from all over the world and discuss the internationally renowned cultural artefacts and artworks that can be found in the collections houses in the heart of Berlin.

Michael Eissenhauer, director, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (State Museums of Berlin)

444 05 d dc 100816 n1 copy

444 05 d dc 100816 n1 copy

Source: David Chipperfield Architects


Project data

Start on site 2009
Completion June 2019
Gross internal floor area 10,900m²
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect David Chipperfield Architects Berlin
Executive architect Wenzel + Wenzel Freie Architekten, Berlin
Client Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage / State Museums of Berlin
Structural engineer IGB Ingenieurgruppe Bauen, Berlin
M&E consultant INNIUS DÖ, Berlin/Inros Lackner, Rostock
Building physics Müller-BBM, Berlin
Quantity surveyor Christine Kappei, Stuttgart
Landscape consultant Levin Monsigny Landschaftsarchitekten, Berlin
Fire consultant Arge Brandschutz NEG, Berlin
Lighting consultant Matí, Adliswil
Lighting design Conceptlicht, Traunreut (outdoor lighting)
Project manager Christoph-Phillip Krinn


Readers' comments (2)

  • The Neuesmuseum is stunning but this...It's so intrusive, in colour and form - it looks like a contemporary art pavillion, and not in a good way. Could it not have been smaller, more respetcful of the views and existing matrials, and just...better??

    Oh and please can archijourno stop using the silly term "moves", as in "DCA made two key moves". Yuk.

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  • Admittedly Berlin isn't like, for example, Bath, but the buildings on Museum Island do appear to share a degree of material 'warmth' while Chipperfield's intervention bears his trademark clinical look.
    It might not be pure white, but it appears to have limited feeling for its context, and this is a problem with his architectural style that's shown up before, in both south London and Stockholm.

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