The adaptation of historical buildings (and landscapes) is a process that particularly interests us; especially where it defuses simplistic notions in which tradition and modernity are considered intrinsically separate. One of the best recent examples of the sensitive, intelligent reworking of a significant historical building within Europe is the Neues Museum (situated in Berlin).
This major project, overseen by David Chipperfield Architects, has been extensively lauded since the museum reopened a decade ago. Part of the Museensinel (a collection of major museums and galleries in Berlin’s centre), the Neues Museum lay derelict and damaged for decades after major damage in the Second World War, before work on the building’s current form began in the late 1990s.
The use of an elegant, pale-coloured concrete (with a character that is closer to natural stone than conventional concrete mixes) throughout the building reinforces the monumental quality of many of the new layers within the building. This beautiful mix can be seen in the ceiling within the image below (which is clearly articulated as a separate element to the pre-existing layer of the original supporting structure), and the walls, plinths and beams within the hall and stairs shown above.
At one point in one’s passage through the uppermost floor, an unfeasible-looking relationship between a metal cupola, glass and the brick dome unfolds like the movement of an eclipse – without betraying the structure that clearly supports it.
The honest approach that the architects adopted to elaborating the different layers of the building extends to the means by which the display of artefacts has been handled. The establishment of a stark contrast between the artefact and their mounts is nothing unusual, but the way in which the incomplete Egyptian bas-relief which is shown below is arranged consciously highlights the absence associated with its partial survival (as well as reminding viewers of the impressive scale of the original object).
Setting aside the fact that the museum’s new form is so visually impressive, it is important to note just how good the experience of visiting the museum is. Looking good is one thing, but at Neues Museum, David Chipperfield Architects formed a vast series of spaces that present the museum’s collections respectfully and generate a wide array of atmospheres as one moves through the building.
Whilst on a recent trip to Berlin, visiting the Neues Museum was one of my main priorities, with the primary drawcard being to see the architecture in person. Upon leaving, however, the quality and breadth of the collections left as strong an impression – that (like all great museums) one could visit Neues Museum again and again, and always find new sources of fascination.