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Ian Ritchie: 'Herzog & de Meuron's contentious Berlin plans need clear brief'

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A meeting of the key players behind Herzog & de Meuron’s opinion-splitting plans to extend Mies’s most-famous Berlin landmark couldn’t have been better timed – but a crystal clear brief is still missing, writes Ian Ritchie

The political tension was palpable at the public discussion of Herzog & de Meuron’s highly controversial competition-winning design for the extension of Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery in the Berlin Culture Forum.

Held on 15 November at the Academie der Künste, the discussion panel, led by Matthias Sauerbruch and Wilfried Wang – deputy director of the architecture section of the Akademie – covered several contentious issues. Also on the panel were Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and a number of politicians, one of whom was the ‘deputy mayor’ for planning.

Herzog presented an outline of the scheme with visuals of the site, which lies between Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist orthogonal building and Hans Scharoun’s expressionist Berliner Philharmonie. Across the Potsdamer Straße, which runs along the east side of the site, is Scharoun’s State Library.

Scharoun had made a masterplan for the whole area, and had proposed a significant but low-rise ‘guest house’ for visiting artists or students on the site of the Herzog & de Meuron cultural forum.

It is reasonable to assume that Scharoun envisaged the National Gallery with a view from a terrace over the roof of the guest house to his own concert hall.

Herzog’s presentation made reference to the Scharoun guest house but moved quickly on to a sketch and image of a Greek temple with its pitched roof/portico, referencing triglyphs and metopes. Images followed of a large, wide German barn and the triangular interior glazed end wall of a large pitched roof station.

This Classical roof shape was the concept behind the design – a challenge to many who feel it does not express the modern spirit of the rest of the Culture Forum. In fact, two roofs dominate the concept: a pitched roof covering the forum over four levels and a terrace roof covering the lower floor. The outer walls of the building would be of porous brick detailing like the practice’s Switch House at London’s Tate Modern. A straight route is implied through the centre, though it was difficult to know where this led to in relation to the National Gallery and the concert hall. The one section shown revealed little.

Berlin Museum of the 20th Century contest

In fact, as Herzog gave no views from ground level it was difficult to appreciate the building’s scale or how it would sit within the wider site. I sensed Herzog & de Meuron edited out much of their design, being conscious of and sensitive to the political heat surrounding their project at this public event.

I was left reflecting upon the relative urban values of the agora and the temple. The one has a spatial connectivity with the city and the other is an object standing in isolation.

Apparently the federal government decided not to have an urban masterplan or urban design competition before holding the architectural competition, which would have been the normal procedure in Germany. The federal government is funding the building, currently estimated at €200 million. However, the Berlin city authority owns the land and one senses they want a landscape conceived for the public that includes the architecture, and not an architecturally dominated residual public space.

The programme-brief for the museum extension is uncertain. In principle, it is to house three art collections from three different families, a key condition of the gifts being that the building must be fully completed and ready to receive them.

The evening gave both client and architects ‘space’ and time to reflect. As for Herzog & de Meuron, they will no doubt respond to some of the intelligent observations made while defending the architects’ skill and right to design. What they must help achieve is the emergence of a really clear and strong client and brief – which is not yet evident.

Very clear from the evening’s discussion was that this initiative by the Akademie der Künste to bring together the principal players was timely – a few months longer and one senses that they would all be ‘trapped’ in an endless firing line.

Ian Ritchie is an elected member of the Akademie der Künste and a member of the Super Jury of the World Architecture Festival

Neue Nationalgalerie. Image by Miriam Guterland

Neue Nationalgalerie. Image by Miriam Guterland

Source: Image by Miriam Guterland

Neue Nationalgalerie competition plot on right

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Is 'extend' the right word? - Herzog & de Meuron have no intention of physically adding to the Mies pavilion, do they? - but the absence of an image of the relationship of the existing and proposed galleries is very strange, to put it mildly.

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