Acting as a gateway to Berlin’s Museum Island, the James-Simon-Galerie provides new exhibition space and facilities lacking in the Neues Museum. The design by David Chipperfield Architects is informed by the context of work by Schinkel and Stüler, and ultimately the ancient Greeks
Words by Herbert Wright
Photography by Paul Raftery
‘As soon as you put a few columns in a row, the Greek reference becomes inevitable,’ said David Chipperfield at the July opening of the James-Simon-Galerie in Berlin. The new €134m (£120.2m) building which his architectural practice designed is big on columns, but they are contemporary — each a skinny 28cm across and square in plan. They create colonnades which look rather like long cages, their columns like the vertical bars. One of 92 columns runs a length of 104m, high above a canal side-channel of the river Spree, the Kupfergraben.
A host of facilities lie in the equally long solid-box volume below it, and narrow stairs descend at one end to a canal-side path (although as Chipperfield comments: ‘We don’t expect too many people to arrive by water’). Another colonnade, which defines a street-level courtyard, has 134 columns and joins itself to a neoclassical colonnade outside the Neues Museum. Between the colonnades, a great staircase rises from the street to an entrance lobby, unusually situated on the top floor. Climbing it feels like ascending to some great monument on a hill, but at its top you find a crisp modernity, in the form of the gallery’s entrance recessed in a rectangular facade.
The James-Simon-Galerie is bounded on three sides by new colonnades
Chipperfield says a colonnade ‘diffuses’ a building. He has used the device before: at the Museum of Modern Literature, completed at Marbach am Neckar near Stuttgart in 2006, the colonnade around the upper floor looks like those in Berlin, but with wider-spaced columns. That project offers other clues about the approach of the James-Simon-Galerie design.
The new 10,900 sq m building is named after the local Jewish philanthropist whose early-twentieth-century donations to Berlin’s museums are at the heart of their collections. His name was scrubbed from history by the Nazis, and Michael Eissenhauer, director-general of Berlin State Museums, says that honouring him is ‘a reconciliation’.
The upper colonnade gives access to the Pergamon Museum and the terrace has stairs to the Kupfergraben canal
Although originally framed as an extension of the Neues Museum, the project’s mission extended to become a new gateway for the five museums of Museum Island (which is actually the northern end of a larger island dominated by high-rise social housing built when it was on the communist side of the Berlin Wall). Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, describes the new building as ‘like a sixth museum’. The others are all neoclassical in style. The Greek Revival with its colonnades, porticos and pediments was trending strongly and they go with it.
The James-Simon-Galerie is now across the road from the oldest, the Altes Museum, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and opened in 1830, and is next door to the Neues Museum, designed by his pupil Friedrich August Stüler, which in its original form was completed in 1855. From 1815, Schinkel had been responsible for town planning in Berlin, then the capital of Prussia. He envisioned an alternative for stately city centres to the baroque formula of grand building blocks and central axes. Instead, solitary buildings have ‘a relationship with each other, and the public space is like a landscape’, summarises Alexander Schwarz, a partner in David Chipperfield Architects and lead designer of the James-Simon-Galerie. ‘That’s sort of the beginning of modern urbanism.’
The landscape aspect introduces topography, but Berlin is flat. Schwarz sees the way the Berlin museums crowd up as ‘almost like a mountain’. He concludes that: ‘Museum Island is almost a built topography with buildings on top of it.’ That is the context of the James-Simon-Galerie, and one reason why Schwarz describes it as ‘landscapely’.
Stairs cut through orthogonal geometry from the upper level to the mezzanine, where the gift shop and cloakroom are
Exterior stairs could be described as topological, like rising ground. The Altes Museum also has a set leading into it, but strikingly, those at the James-Simon-Galerie chime with the stairs of the Pergamon Altar, built in Greece around 170 BC, which were reconstructed full scale for display inside the Pergamon Museum (although the copy is currently in a nearby temporary structure). The altar stairs, too, have colonnades either side of them, mounted high, just like the new one along the canal. Certainly, the long box volume under the new high colonnade, which acts as a plinth for it, is topographical. This bulwark is like an escarpment of rock, an austere, unbroken solid mass penetrated by just two windows. Indeed it is rock, sort of — along with the columns, it is cast stone with Saxon marble aggregates, giving it a near-whiteness not unlike Portland stone. Inside the James-Simon-Galerie lie solutions to the mounting challenges the Neues Museum had, including the dramatic rise in group visitors, technical demands including exhibition loading, and a shortfall of contemporary facilities.
Just two major windows punctuate the plinth of the James- Simon-Galerie above the Kupfergraben. Both wings of the Pergamon Museum rise beyond it
The Second World War had left the Neues Museum so damaged that it was a ruin. In the 1994 competition to refurbish it and extend it to the canal, Chipperfield was second to Giorgio Grassi (identified with Italy’s rationalist La Tendenza movement), but Berlin State Museums were not convinced and declared that the brief was incorrect. A competition in 1997 just for the Neues Museum, without an extension, saw Chipperfield up against Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was then opening, generating giddy excitement in the museum world. Schwarz describes Gehry’s Berlin scheme as ‘flamboyant’. He asserts that bringing in conservation architect Julian Harrap to collaborate with Chipperfield showed that ‘we are very much interested in what’s there already… We don’t see the Museum Island as the opportunity to show off’. It also helped Chipperfield win the competition (though work didn’t begin until 2003).
A wooden pile on display in the Archeological Promenade once supported the Packhof which originally occupied the site
The Neues Museum project’s second stage — its extension that had been shelved in the 90s, but which was revived in 2006 — would ultimately became the James-Simon-Galerie. But what Chipperfield calls the ‘shopping list of concerns, anxieties and problems’ that would shape the brief for it was far from clear at the outset, and kept growing. He remarks that: ‘We were uncomfortable [about it] being a dustbin of extra facilities.’
In 2006, Chipperfield’s initial design for the extension had generated such opposition for not fitting in with what was there that a revision was ordered. That was the year the Museum of Modern Literature completed, which also had a relationship with an adjacent institution, the Schiller- Nationalmuseum (1903). It had topography, in the natural form of a plateau edge. Not least, Chipperfield sees colonnades as promoting the idea of ‘open architecture’. Returning to the drawing board for the Berlin building, he says that ‘the idea of the contemporary museum as much more open and transparent gave us a clue’.
Where it meets the Neues Museum’s colonnade, the James-Simon-Galerie’s lower colonnade permits vehicle entry into the courtyard
In 2009, the reconstructed Neues Museum opened with its prize-winning poetic fusion of new with what survived of the old. In the same year, funds for the extension were approved and work started on a foundation pit next to the museum where once the Schinkel-designed Packhof, a customs warehouse, had stood. The dig was the start of what would become the James-Simon-Galerie. Changes to its programme included the basement levels, originally designated for storage. When the need for temporary exhibition space was identified, it and an auditorium were ‘pushed into the soil, so we could liberate the space [above] as purposeless,’ says Chipperfield. The word suggests space which has no functional demand other than stating itself as space, with the impact which that in itself can have. He cites Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which the practice is restoring, as another example of having ‘purposeless’ space.
The temporary exhibitions gallery is an underground box. Visitors sit on examples of the Chipperfield-designed ‘Simon bench’
Now it’s complete, we actually find there is purpose inside the James-Simon-Galerie’s upper level — it hosts the entrance foyer and its front-of-house desks. The airy space has a strong sense of simplicity in its rectilinearity, robust surfaces with strong materiality, and light. Daylight comes through from the high colonnaded terrace on one side, which includes a cafe-restaurant sandwiched between internal and external glazing, the latter reaching the full 8m height of the colonnade. The floor is of Crailsheim shell limestone.
A cafe is sandwiched by glazing between the upper entrance foyer and upper colonnade
Beyond the lobby, the space becomes a passage. Light is filtered through a Japanese-like screen in the wall at the far end, which is glass but rendered translucent rather than transparent by a thin layer of bright marble from Thassos, Greece. There we find direct access to the Pergamon Museum (the last of the five museums, completed in 1930). Between foyer and far wall, interior stairs cut down into the floor, within an L-shaped balustrade of low concrete walls. This refreshed, Cartesian brutalism follows down with the stairs, but not out from them on to all the floors.
Curves of walnut wood and ridged concrete section provide passive acoustics in the auditorium
The mezzanine level has a low ceiling and subdued light levels — despite the great length of it, just two large windows admit natural light from over the canal. The dominant surfacing is wood, including a smoked oak floor and furniture of French walnut. A long museum shop recedes into windowless interior space like a wood-lined library passage, but with added retail counters, and a discreet door at the far end accesses a lift that rises into the high colonnade. It’s not quite a case of ‘exit through the gift shop’ — as Schwarz says, ‘you have to find it’.
Natural light fills the upper entrance foyer
The ground floor has another lobby, opening on to that new colonnaded courtyard which is screened from the entrance stairs by a wall. It also provides access to the 350-seat auditorium, which slopes down under the exterior staircase to such a deep level that the stage is at the canal’s water level. The ceiling is covered by three suspended, curved sections of walnut wood, for acoustics and to carry lights, and the side walls are heavy concrete shaped into vertical sections that present thin edges away from the stage. The flooring, as in the mezzanine, is smoked oak.
The main basement level hosts the new 650 sq m temporary exhibition space, which is not quite rectangular but narrows slightly as it follows the great wall facing the canal which forms one long side. Its ceiling is a run of parallel concrete beams and lighting, and its floor limestone. At the foot of the interior stairs, there is another exhibition area, dedicated to the Museum Island itself, and including a big model of it.
A contemporary minimalist brutalism characterises circulation spaces, such as this passage from the upper entrance
Turn the corner at the end of this area and you enter the Archeological Promenade. This is an underground passage which will ultimately spread across Museum Island ‘like an octopus’, as Chipperfield comments. Just before it enters the Neues Museum, part of it becomes double height, enabling walls of clerestory glazing to bring in daylight from the James-Simon-Galerie courtyard on one side, and the Pergamon Museum’s side wall on the other. Here, an original Packhof wooden pile from about 1830 is given centre stage. It stands upright like a giant pencil, its sharp end on the floor and the other on the ceiling. It’s unlikely to be bearing any load, but it looks in good shape. The new building needed 1,200 new piles that had to be driven far deeper than this one was, requiring holes up to 50m deep.
Much of the furniture is designed by Chipperfield with characteristic minimalism, such as the super-thin Simon bench, realised with furniture makers e15, on which visitors can sit on a soft sliver covering of vegetable-tanned leather. The clarity of the wayfinding notices and graphics by Berlin-based Polyform also match the overall quiet, contemporary aesthetic, although they are deployed in the older museums as well.
Stairs passing the courtyard and its colonnade descend to the basement, where the exhibition hall and Archeological Promenade are located
There were no ruins or remnants to incorporate into the James-Simon-Galerie’s built structure, but it does inject modernity into what Chipperfield calls the Museum Island’s ‘hallowed ground’. Of course, the practice had already delivered the Neues Museum there, and facing the James- Simon-Galerie across the Kupfergraben is another example of juxtaposing old and new: Haus Bastian, where Schwarz led the extension of a nineteenth-century building with a matching-scale contemporary gallery block, completed in 2007. The juxtapositions go beyond Museum Island and Chipperfield. From Egon Eiermann’s 1960 Kaiser Wilhelm Church beside the 1891 church’s tower ruin, then Foster’s glass dome on the Reichstag in 1999, they continue with Franco Stella’s Schloss and Humboldt Forum with both contemporary and reconstructed baroque facades, due to open in 2020 at Museum Island’s edge.
The James-Simon- Galerie upper foyer becomes like a lantern as dusk falls
Why does the city keep bringing old and new together? Schwarz talks of how ‘there was an emptiness in the centre of Berlin, a physical emptiness and a historic emptiness’, and it needed ‘ideas to deal with it’. The James-Simon- Galerie, he says, ‘tries to propose another idea of modernism… that the modern and historic are both contemporary, and therefore have a future’.
If Schinkel or Stüler, or even the ancient Greeks, were time-warped in to see the James-Simon-Galerie, they would likely get it. The style is stripped down and the materials updated, but the play of architectonics and topology which they mastered continues. And although it may be too early to judge, it seems that the reshuffle in form and position of colonnades and columns has not affected their magic ability of delivering timelessness.