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Wall and piece: David Chipperfield, Julian Harrap and the Neues Museum, Berlin.

In Berlin, there is a place called Museum Island. With stereotypical Prussian thoroughness, the five great museums and art galleries of the nation were all built together in this one place between 1825 and 1930. Badly damaged in the Second World War, they then found themselves on the wrong side of the Wall, their collections divided between East and West. Since reunification, this has been Germany’s biggest cultural reconstruction project, a 1.5 billion Euro work in progress. It has led to a strange and wonderful architectural phenomenon, just completed: the Neues Museum, as restored by Brits.

I can guarantee that you have never seen architecture quite like this before. It is a ruin that has been brought back into use. Restored, yes, but not back to its original ornate mid 19th century state (it was the second museum to be built on the site, hence its being called “new”). Nor has it been crudely modernised, though there is plenty of brand-new architecture in it. Instead it has been lovingly put back together at a cost of some 200 million Euros – considerably under budget, as it happens – but it still gives the impression of being semi-derelict. This is not the usual German way of doing things. They prefer their restorations to be exact replicas of the past.

They love it now, the Germans – indeed its architect, the London-based Stirling Prize-winning David Chipperfield, has become something of a media celebrity and runs a big Berlin office with lots of other work in Germany. But during the twelve years that he has worked on this project alongside another British architect, restoration specialist Julian Harrap, things have sometimes got a little tense. At one point the right-wing press was saying that the British had destroyed the museum once, and now they were doing it again. That was funny, but unfair – there was precious little left to destroy after the RAF had done its stuff in the war, and the German Democratic Republic had comprehensively neglected the damaged ruins for the following 45 years.

Chipperfield and Harrap won the competition to rebuild the Neues Museum in 1997, by ingeniously proposing to rebuild the smashed-up museum in a way that made its tumultuous history very clear. The following year Chipperfield became masterplanner for the whole of Museum Island. Which means he is in charge of the cultural heart of Germany, which also happens to be a Unesco World Heritage Site. So a bit of political pressure was to be expected and the sleek black Mercs of the ruling classes made ever more frequent visits to the site. But gradually, the subtlety and charm of Chipperfield and Harrap’s approach became apparent. Now the Neues Museum is finished, but empty. Its exhibits – in particular its once-famous Egyptian collection – are being called in from other museums all over Berlin. Duly stocked with priceless artefacts, it will reopen in the autumn. But my guess is that many will still come to experience the building rather than its contents. They are holding public open days in its empty state, and expecting 100,000 visitors. I’m not surprised.

All buildings get more interesting as they acquire their layers of history, and in this case the history is extreme. The original Neues Museum as built by Friedrich August Stüler between 1841 and 1859 was a moderately grand affair with a rather dull façade. Stüler had been a pupil of the great neoclassicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect to the court of Imperial Prussia, who had built the original Altes Museum alongside – now heavily over-restored by others, and rather lifeless as a consequence. Stüler was being deferential to his old boss, but he cut loose a bit with his sumptuous interiors. Those had long gone apart from a few surviving fragments. The main staircase hall was gutted, and bombs had demolished its north-west frontage and south-east corner.

Go there today, and you find that the bombed parts have been reinstated – but in rough, unfinished brickwork. The original building was brick, but rendered with mortar finished to look like stone. Where the original surface of the surviving parts has flaked off in large patches, it has not been replaced – you’d never get an exact colour match, says Chipperfield – but the old brick has been coated with a thin mortar slurry so as to make the damage recede. But you can still see the bricks beneath, just as you can clearly see the new bits.

That is intriguing if a little puzzling – the place looks a bit flaky even though it isn’t. Chipperfield and Harrap have avoided pastiche historical reconstruction while not glorifying the extent of the wartime damage. The marks of damage have made Stüler’s exterior a lot more interesting but – now as then – it’s in the interiors that the real revelations come.

Take the tour-de force centrepiece of the whole museum, the main stair. There was a lot of debate over whether to reinstate a copy of the original, but this was an opportunity to do something highly contemporary and Chipperfield – a modernist to his core – duly obliged. It’s justifiable in the William Morris/John Ruskin way of thinking, that every era’s contribution to a historic building should be clearly visible along with the repairs.

Their stance was prompted by the Victorian craze for pastiche over-restoration of old churches. They were anti-fake, basically. And this has become the English way of considering restoration projects. Also, as Chipperfield points out, the Italian way with their old churches. But Germany is different, and wartime damage is a much more emotive subject than time-induced decay.

As you wander round the building, you have to marvel. Every room is different, effectively considered as a separate project. Some are lined with sumptuous concrete – of a quality you just don’t find in Britain. Others preserve what remains of the scenographic wall-paintings of the Victorian era -an Egyptian-inspired decorative scheme is carefully restored in one part, for instance. The building’s internal courtyards are glazed over and in one of them a new modern freestanding structure has been inserted to provide more exhibition space without touching the original walls.

I was impressed by the pots. The river-island site was marshy and Stüler wanted to keep his building as light as possible. So he used a technique of making shallow domed ceiling vaults out of hollow clay pots. Many of these had been destroyed. Chipperfield and Harrap found people capable of making some 40,000 replacement pots – by hand. It’s hard to tell the difference between the old ones and the new ones but the clues are there if you look hard enough. This kind of attention to detail is rare.

In a way, though, the best part of the revived Neues Museum is an incident, a transition point. Chipperfield has rebuilt the bombed south-eastern corner, complete with a dome to balance the one on the other corner. Inside, the new one is a full-height space, in the same rough new brick, rising from a square room at ground level in a seamless transition to the dome with its oculus skylight far above. It is kept dark. Two white classical statues, male and female, stand in the space, individually lit. This is a totally new section, but it is also a variant of an ancient form – a tholos – which goes right back to the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. That was 1300 BC.

Chipperfield, then, is playing architecture’s long game. He has learned much from Museum Island about the classical tradition. His brand of modernism is increasingly classically-tinged. He knows about the spacing of columns, the importance of proportion. And he and Harrap both know that, if you’re playing the long game, you don’t pretend that an incident in a building’s history never happened. The best architecture can take damage and be enriched by it.

The Neues Museum is such a rich composition, so carefully, almost obsessively, brought back to life, that it falls into no category. It is of itself, and it is an object lesson in timeless architecture. It is extraordinarily good. What happens next? Why, right behind the Neues Museum, Chipperfield has just started building a large new 73 million-Euro gallery that will also act as an entry point for all the museums in the campus – linked by a subterranean “archaeological promenade”. There’s plenty of work for him in Berlin yet.

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, 15 March 2009, as “The britische Architekten are coming”.

Links

David Chipperfield Architects: http://www.davidchipperfield.co.uk/
Julian Harrap Architects: http://www.julianharraparchitects.co.uk/
Museum Island project info: http://tinyurl.com/museuminsel