On the overhaul of the New National Gallery by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Berlin

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Text: Gregor Harbusch

The conservation-compliant overhaul of Berlin’s New National Gallery by David Chipperfield Architects is costing around 110 million euro. And in the end there will be next to nothing to show for it; the architects are forgoing all form of re-interpretation out of a huge sense of respect for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece. The building is to re-open next year. What is likely to await visitors?

Despite the New National Gallery’s aura of absolute clarity, it is actually beset with contradictions. Uncompromisingly modern though it may be in design and material, it is rather more conventional in spirit. Its glazed exhibition hall embodies magnificent ideals and yet, in the basement area, Mies operated with carpeting, wooden skirting boards and woodchip wallpaper. And the museum isn’t really a museum either, since the Berlin project is based on plans for the Bacardi headquarters on Cuba.

Nothing became of the blueprint, which Mies adapted in 1961 when he was contracted to build an exhibition venue at the Berlin Cultural Forum. It comes as no surprise, then, that the huge hall caused problems from the outset. The curators of almost all exhibitions held there had great difficulty coming to terms with the wall-less space – and, within a short time of the building opening, condensation caused the curtains to adhere to the glass panes.

It also proved necessary to comprehensively overhaul the New National Gallery’s concrete structure. (Photo: Bundesamt für Raumordnung und Bauwesen / Thomas Bruns)

Neither will the hall have been transformed into an ideal exhibition space with rigorous conservationist credentials after it has been overhauled. A decision was made by its operators, the architects and building conservationists to retain its sense of pure space and merely to invisibly enhance its bold steel-and-glass structure. Overhauling the façade, which had been too rigidly engineered and was unable to cope with the temperature fluctuations to which Berlin is subject, turned out to be a correspondingly awkward affair.

The planners opted to install three mullion posts with expansion joints on each face and to fit laminated safety glass specially imported from China – supplied by the only company worldwide capable of producing the requisite panes, which measure eleven and a quarter feet across. With insulating glass being ruled out on conservationist grounds, it will instead be attempted to prevent panes misting over in future by improving the air-conditioning system.

Indeed, the building’s technical services have been completely renewed, whilst the architects have additionally extended the basement floor by adding an art storeroom and mechanical service rooms in the direction of Potsdamer Strasse. Visitors will only indirectly register this, the most substantial structural alteration, by virtue of the service areas in the lower foyer having been accordingly enlarged.

Scaffolding obstructs the main hall in the New National Gallery for the duration of the overhaul.
(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)

Work on the west face of the building. Visible in the background: Cultural Forum with St. Matthew’s Church.
(Photo: Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning/Thomas Bruns)

The building was practically reduced to a carcass for the overhaul and all fitments such as doors, ceiling panelling and flooring placed in storage. Here the Garden Room in the basement.
(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)

Exhibition spaces in the basement
(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)

The main hall prior to the overhaul.
(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)

Main hall with cloakroom and cashdesk modules removed.
(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)

Martin Reichert, representing Chipperfield, states that the working atmosphere between all parties concerned is excellent. A joint excursion to buildings by Mies in the USA at the start of the planning process was both educational and an effective team-building measure. The overhaul involves several different parties after all. Everyone, he stresses, is agreed as to the extremely ambitious conservationist policy to be pursued for the building, even though it is one that occasionally clashes with modern notions of how a museum should be run.

Only in one point was there any real clash of views: the museum’s operators would have all too gladly done without the brown floor covering in the basement once it had been overhauled. But the architects and conservationists won out and the carpeting was reproduced to extant original patterns – very much in a Sixties’ vein. The similarly original woodchip wallpaper was not, by contrast, reinstated; instead, it will be possible in future to experience the art of classical Modernism against a backdrop of smoothly plastered walls.

There was general consensus in the end here that woodchip would have infused the interior with a touch too much homely intimacy. But maybe this view of things is set to alter, too, and in ten or twenty years time the decorators will turn up with a brief to restore to its original state a further feature of Mies van der Rohe’s ambivalent icon of international postwar Modernism.

View into the building pit for the new storerooms in the basement. Behind, the State Library and buildings on Potsdamer Platz.

(Photo: Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning/Thomas Bruns)

One of the steel columns supporting the huge roof.

(Photo: Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects)