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The Neues Museum: the craft of architecture in ruin and restoration by Andrew Ng

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Engagement with architecture is experienced with a tactility that transcends the theoretical or stylistic preferences of architectural expression. Adolf Loos suggests that the experience of space is ‘produced by both material and the form of the space’[1]. At the Neues Museum in Berlin, both are meticulously considered to create a contemporary architectural experience that reflects the destructive history of the building. The context is, admittedly, unique – the building both houses a museum and is in itself a museum, an artefact skilfully created as a memento of what was, what has been, and what has emerged. Designed by Friedrich August Stüler and completed in 1855, the museum was heavily bombed during World War II, reopening in 2009 following extensive rebuilding to a design by David Chipperfield. Where the architecture is as much the exhibit as the artefacts contained within, and the history has the significance of that in Berlin, the intentional acts of preserving, restoring, and making again are particularly poignant. It is a testament to the importance of craft in making spaces, through ruin and restoration.

Stylistically Chipperfield’s work at the Neues Museum is, for the most part, a restrained Modernist tribute to Neoclassicism. It is, however, more than a simple interpretation of historical style that makes the spaces within the museum striking. There is a complex relationship between the horizontal enfilades of gallery spaces and the central vertical stair in spatial arrangement, material quality, and detail. The surviving historic parts of the building express the original architecture, defining a material palette for preservation; while the stair defines Chipperfield’s architectural approach of contemporary rebuilding, and the relationship between old and new. The spatial layout and form are rooted in history and the details are rooted in ruin. The craft however, is rooted in the act of contemporary intervention, creating a cohesion in the experience of space throughout the building.

The new staircase, an over scaled vertical ‘hole’ interrupting the horizontal layout of the exhibition rooms, acts as a striking reminder of the destruction of the bombing. Ultra-refined polished concrete zigzags up through the shell left by the bombs, while remnants of the original floor levels and wall finishes haunt the space – a reminder of what was. The contrast of the smooth concrete and the rough brick of the walls sets a tone that is continued throughout the building with new meeting old in unapologetically clean lines. While the ‘spectacle’ of the architecture in this entrance space is an expression of the contemporary, the focus of the architectural experience is on the ruin. Standing within the space, it reads as a bombed hollow. The upper floor of the space has not been reinstated, emphasising the shell-like quality of the room. This verticality, and hence the aspect of ruin expressed in the architecture, is further accentuated by the form and detail of the staircase. Emerging from a central hole in the ground the stair splits to continue up either side of the room, and in doing so maintains the ‘empty’ feeling of the space, leaving the central zone as void. Pale concrete set against ruined fragments creates a distinctive material language of old and new; this expression of the contemporary as a means of highlighting the ruin, is a language that extends throughout the entirety of the spaces within the building.

The bombed exhibition rooms have been rebuilt, column-less in contrast to the historic plan, with unobtrusive concrete beams to support the floors and ceilings. The spatial subtlety of walking through the enfilade of rooms, transitioning from the remaining historic columned spaces through to the open rebuilt spaces lays bare the ruinous state of the museum post-war, while creating a continuum through fragments of ruin that are visible throughout the building. Scraps of historic paintwork on the walls, meticulously preserved, hint at an age of neoclassical splendour and serve as a haunting reminder of the museum’s destruction. When viewed alongside the crisp concrete beams, a sharp contrast to the heavy historic columns of the original building, both fragment and intervention are movingly striking.

It is the refinement of the contemporary architecture that allows the fragments to form a visual, and emotional, link to that which survived the bombing. There is no expression of contemporary style, the single material palette and colour gives visual precedence to that which remains of the historic. The lighting is intentionally unobtrusive, recessed in ordered service channels within the ceiling. Where there are no remaining fragments of the historic building, the single palette of the contemporary intervention creates minimalist spaces – pale rooms, ghosts, of what was there before. In an age where new architectures so often strive for ambitious abstract forms with attention-grabbing material choices, it is refreshing to be reminded of the simple beauty and powerful expression of a space made from a singular material and impeccably detailed.

Ruskin writes that, ‘the architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain for concealing it’[2]. In that he advocates that in crafting buildings the architect should be free to seek cues aside from those driven by structural expression. At the Neues Musuem, both preservation and intervention pay homage to, and are driven by, the fragmented nature of the remaining historical building. The restrained expression of the contemporary rebuilding is neither subservient to the historic nor self-serving. Instead it highlights the significant past of the spaces enclosed, and in doing so creates a heightened meaning in both the historic and the contemporary architectures. Its visual simplicity, with regard to material, form, and detail, is an understated reminder that sometimes the most powerful architecture can emerge when we appear to do the least.



[1] Loos. A. (1898). ‘The Principle of Cladding’, in Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays, 1897-1900 (1982). Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.

[2]  Ruskin, J. (1849). The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1961). New York, Noonday Press.

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