Last weekend Berliners had the chance to snatch a glimpse of a truly dynamic and meaningful museum building. After eleven years of work, David Chipperfield -- who won a competition to restore the building in 1997 -- unveiled the reconstructed Neues Museum. To my mind he has created the most perfect museum for the city.
The history is fascinating. Friedrich August Stüler’s neoclassical building was erected in 1847. During the Second World War it was so badly damaged that the East German government could neither conceive how nor afford to restore it. For almost half a century the ruins were left to the elements, with trees taking root in its galleries and the Spree at times flooding its basement. Only with reunification, and deeper (West) German pockets, could the €200 million be found to resurrect it.
In an inspired and bold move, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – along with other government bodies – chose not to simply restore the museum to its pre-war state. Instead they decided to preserve its ‘strange chronology’ – to quote Chipperfield – by linking together original material, war- and weather-damaged sections as well as modern elements. The result is a museum that can be read like a history book, the fabric of the building telling the story of Berlin.
‘The great argument was whether to restore it to like it used to be, or to create something more interesting,’ Chipperfield told me when we met ( I’ve interviewed him for an upcoming Condé Nast Traveller article on the New Berlin). He compared the reconstruction to an archaeological project. Fragments of an ancient vase, for example, aren’t thrown away and a new vase created to the same dimensions, instead the fragments are put back together in a ‘soft’ restoration. In this sensitive - yet daring –approach to the reuse of a building’s historic fabric, he strikes a delicate balance between restoration, repair and intervention. ‘I wanted to capture the damage of war as well as of the following sixty years,’ he said.
The Neues Museum is the fourth of five institutions to be completed on Berlin’s Museum Island. When it is formally opened in October, it will house the archaeological collections of the Egyptian Museum including the 3,400-year-old Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. It’s calculated that Museum Island will then attract up to four million visitors a year.
But this past weekend the building was empty, apart from twenty thousand Berliners who queued up for ‘ein erster blick’ (a first glimpse). I went along them, this time in the company of Mrs. Cat and Maus. As we snaked through the beautiful Vestible and Egyptian Gallery, then climbed Stüler’s great staircase to the light and airy upper rooms, I couldn’t help but be moved by the building’s survival, and its spectacular rebirth. Created by a revered German architect, devastated by American bombs and Soviet shells, abandoned by the Communists, now restored by a British architect working with brickies from Dresden, computer programmers from California and designers from Munich – the Neues Museum encapsulated man’s ability to build, destroy and preserve things of great beauty.
It’s no wonder that Chipperfield joked at the end of his inspirational role in this remarkable project, ‘After 11 years’ work, I’m a little reluctant to hand over the keys today.’