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Name   Neues Museum
Date   1993–2009
Address   Museum Island, Berlin, Germany
Floor Plan   20,500 SQ.M.

The Neues Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island was designed by Friedrich August Stüler and built between 1841 and 1859. Extensive bombing during the Second World War left the building in ruins, with entire sections missing completely and others severely damaged. Few attempts at repair were made after the war, and the structure was left exposed to nature. In 1997, David Chipperfield Architects won the international competition for the rebuilding of the Neues Museum in collaboration with Julian Harrap.

The key aim of the project was to recomplete the original volume, and encompassed the repair and restoration of the parts that remained after the destruction of the Second World War. The original sequence of rooms was restored with new building sections that create continuity with the existing structure. The archaeological restoration followed the guidelines of the Charter of Venice, respecting the historical structure in its different states of preservation. All the gaps in the existing structure were filled in without competing with the existing structure in terms of brightness and surface. The restoration and repair of the existing is driven by the idea that the original structure should be emphasized in its spatial context and original materiality – the new reflects the lost without imitating it.

The new exhibition rooms are built of large format pre-fabricated concrete elements consisting of white cement mixed with Saxonian marble chips. Formed from the same concrete elements, the new main staircase repeats the original without replicating it, and sits within a majestic hall that is preserved only as a brick volume, devoid of its original ornamentation. Other new volumes – the Northwest wing, with the Egyptian court and the Apollo risalit, the apse in the Greek courtyard, and the South Dome – are built of recycled handmade bricks, complementing the preserved sections. With the reinstatement and completion of the mostly preserved colonnade at the Eastern and Southern side of the Neues Museum, the pre-war urban situation is re-established to the East. A new building, the James-Simon-Galerie, between the Neues Museum and the Kupfergraben canal, echoes the urban situation of the site pre-1938.

In 2009, after more than sixty years as a ruin, the Neues Museum reopened to the public as the third restored building on Museum Island, exhibiting the collections of the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Pre- and Early History.



There’s an obvious attraction to David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum. At a time when we have been sated with the glittering object, the spectacular form, the rhetoric of newness and the icon, here is a work of patience, time and leaving alone. This might explain why it is already fêted by critics, politicians and the Berlin public, even though it is empty of the objects it was built to serve. Its completion feels like one of those moments when a museum building, like the Pompidou Centre or the Guggenheim Bilbao, has caught a collective mood.

The Neues Museum was completed in 1855, bombed in 1943 and 1945, and then left to rot until restoration started (and then stopped again) in 1989. Chipperfield’s big idea was to retain the spirit of the ruin he found. It was a paradoxical operation, to preserve the character of decay in the fixed environment that museums require. His aim was not ‘demonstration of damage, but of the beauty that was there’.

He does so room by room and surface by surface, responding to the different conditions found in each. At one end of the spectrum there’s fabric found almost intact, where slightly battered decoration is stabilised; at the other are wholly new rooms. In between are rooms defined by fragments of plaster, distressed but recognisable classical columns and vaults of hollow clay pots whose tapioca patterns were never intended to be seen, but have a certain beauty.

In these spaces the architects had to judge when the new work should announce its newness, and when to merge with the found, as with the 30,000 clay pots that were made (by one man over three years) to go alongside the originals. Their judgment included an appreciation of the context and role of each space: thus the great staircase, which follows the form but not the detail of the stair it reinstates, is the most emphatic of the new interventions, fitting its role as the public centre of the museum. In places where the exhibits will be the centre of attention, the architecture becomes less prominent.

This approach is an impressive professional achievement. To pursue the intangible over many years, through the politics and pressures of a building project, without losing its essence, is difficult. Usually architects subjugate such pressures with the pursuit of a fixed object or a dominant style but here hundreds of people had to be brought in to an elusive concept.

Architecturally, the result is a series of halls into which critics and some of the public have been invited to roam, like people exploring a vast house inherited from an unknown uncle. Here, scorched columns, up to a century-and-a-half old, seem to acquire a greater antiquity. As we expect the classical to be ruined, they seem more authentic than they would have done when pristine.

There is an overall illusion of talc-like softness, a chalky quality to the illumination, and a dreaminess. Its brick construction reveals a lightness that the original architecture, wanting to look all stone, concealed.

Now the Neues Museum creates reverberations of different degrees of time. These include the time of its original construction, revealed by the partial stripping of surfaces. Also that of its subsequent use, bombing, erosion by weather and finally, its slow restoration. There is the Greco-Roman time to which its original classical architecture refers, and there will be the time of its Egyptian and other exhibits, and the quicker time of its living visitors. The place is a composite of human and natural actions, some violent, some exquisite, some touching, some ordinary.

There are very few bum notes, although I don’t get Chipperfield’s faith in tall square pillars, which appear here and there. They let down the subtlety of the rest. Traps have been avoided, such as creating a theme park of destruction, or a string of anecdotes. The scraps of plaster and scoured columns are never allowed to become the main story.

What I am describing is in fact architecture. The Neues Museum might seem like a special case, and old buildings bring their privileges such as access to craftsmanship that is taboo in new work. But the elements of Chipperfield’s approach are the making of spaces, the appreciation of whatever is found, and a view of the architect’s work as a series of actions that intersect with those made previously on a site, and those to be made in the future. Such attitudes are also applicable to wholly new buildings, whatever the location.

Chipperfield’s Neues Museum is not, after all, about reticence or self-denial. It is a strong and distinctive idea about a place, made real. It should not then be seen as a precursor of a new modesty, or as the opposite of all the virtuoso architecture of recent years. What is special about it, and what it would be good to see more of, is the fluidity, the reciprocity to things outside the architect’s own brain, that go with its strength of purpose.


ROWAN MOORE. Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects, Berlin, Germany // The Architectural Review, 01.05.2009.

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