Since its founding, the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) has been a Berlin museum focused on 20th-century art. The museum is located in the Kulturforum and is considered one of the most important museums in the area; being the first building to be completed within the Kulturforum, the urban reconstruction plan for the area between the Tiergarten and Potsdamer Straße in West Berlin (almost destroyed by the 1945 bombings). The building was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1968. Constructed entirely of steel and glass, the former material is used for the roof and its supporting supports, while glass is for the walls. The overall feeling the structure gives the observer is that the roof is floating in the air. The glass walls allow light to fully penetrate the building so that the distance between inside and outside, between nature and the building, is eliminated. Like a huge dark metal grid, LCD screens are installed on the ceiling, reproducing abstract subjects along the entire ceiling length. This combination of the natural outdoor lighting and the sense of continuous movement suggested by the LCD screens is meant to emphasise the distinctiveness of the works displayed on the lower floor. At the same time, the geometric linearity of the forms gives a sense of relief rather than oppression.
A new museum concept
The project’s main component is the museum proper, which extends to a basement level, with a height of 4 m, built of reinforced concrete. The building that emerges from the outside constitutes the entrance hall and is represented by a square room measuring 50.40×50.40 m, 8.40 m high, glazed on all sides, and with a completely unobstructed floor plan inside. Interrupting the spatial continuity are two vertical ducts lined with marble that carry the technical systems to the ceiling, where they are then distributed horizontally. The large hall is used for possible temporary exhibitions. The roof consists of a rigid plate that, a first in the history of construction, is formed by an orthogonal grid of double-T metal beams. Eight pillars, two on each side, of cruciform-section steel, tapering slightly upward, support the structure’s broad roof. It is a structural idea that represents the apotheosis of Mies’ research in large-span structures for creating large spaces.
Less is always more
Mies’ works mainly aim to reduce the building organism to its essential form. For each theme, the German architect establishes a “less” from which inevitably derives a “more” in the control of form and distribution. Carlos Martí interprets Mies’ Neue National Galerie as the realisation of the idea of a modern city temple with serenity and transparency. In an analogical sense, this building is analogous to a large classroom, corresponding to different but similar phenomena of the building’s enjoyment—this formal quest for essentiality guides Mies to the realisation of the basic lines of the project. The artwork finds itself immersed in the same space in which the viewer moves, leaving the viewer with the possibility of delineating a personal path beyond the spatial organisation of the nineteenth-century museum model, allowing a new kind of direct and free perception. In this space, freedom itself becomes an aesthetic experience.
A new perceptual experience
The building is designed for a far more educated and interested user than those for whom nineteenth-century museums, institutions placed at the service of the sciences and the arts to enable the cultural advancement of the public, were intended. In our century, objects are collected for their informational value. The purpose is no longer educational but aimed at promoting new perceptual experiences. The modern temple of Mies is thus the temple of technology, reason, and science in its democratic relation to society and the evolution of humanity’s communicative levels.
Chipperfield’s new design
However, after nearly fifty years of use, the building, classified as a cultural heritage site and therefore deserving of appropriate protection and preservation, needed complete renovation. The existing fabric has been refurbished and upgraded to current technical standards with a minimal visual compromise to the building’s original appearance. The fundamental point behind the planning process of this redevelopment project was to find an appropriate balance between preserving the monument and its historical value and, at the same time, converting the building into a modern museum. The unavoidable interventions to the original fabric within this process had to be reconciled with preserving as much of the original substance as possible. Although the additions are essentially subordinate to the building’s pre-existing design, they can still be read as contemporary and highly innovative elements. The refurbishment project does not represent a new interpretation but rather a respectful repair of this landmark building of the International Style.
The importance of preservation
The key to the complex planning process for this project was finding the right balance between heritage preservation and using the building as a modern museum. The inevitable interventions on the original fabric within this process had to be reconciled with preserving as much of the original essence as possible. Although the essential additions remain subordinate to the design of the existing building, they are still discreetly legible as contemporary elements. The renovation project does not represent a new interpretation but rather a respectful repair of this iconic building of the International Style. “Dismantling a building of such unquestionable authority was a strange experience but a privilege,” said David Chipperfield. “The Neue Nationalgalerie is a milestone for me and many other architects. Looking beyond the outer shell revealed merits and flaws, which only deepened my admiration for Mies’ vision. Our work was, therefore, surgical and addressed technical issues to protect this vision. Certainly, performing such a task in a building that leaves no room for concealment is daunting. Still, we hope to have returned this beloved patient seemingly intact, except for its improved functionality.”
ArchDaily (2023) Neue Nationalgalerie / David Chipperfield Architects [Online] Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/960604/neue-nationalgalerie-david-chipperfield-architects [Accessed date: 2023/03/03]
Di Marzo, C. (2022) Chipperfield completes renovation of Neue Nationalgalerie [Online] Available at: https://www.archiportale.com/news/2021/04/architettura/chipperfield-completa-la-ristrutturazione-della-neue-nationalgalerie_82435_3.html [Accessed date: 2023/03/03]
Favole, P., Mirabella A.C. (2022) Neue Nationalgalerie, David Chipperfield Architects, Berlino [Online] Available at: https://www.arketipomagazine.it/neue-nationalgalerie-david-chipperfield-architects-berlino/ [Accessed date: 2023/03/03]