The Neues Museum: A Masterful Ruin
Yesterday, I enjoyed the vista over the ruins of the Neues Museum in Berlin. The museum is now beautifully air conditioned and a fine place to see ancient artifacts.
Ruins carry more meaning that finished or occupied buildings, especially in Germany. For example, the remains of the church on the Kurfurstendamm sat as a memorial to the war and the city’s division for decades. In Nuremberg, people are still figuring out what to do with the remains of Hitler’s parade grounds. Long before that, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, now housed in a horribly restored museum next to the Neues Museum, used ruins as symbols of moral and mortal decay.
In the case of the Neues Museum, David Chipperfield has built around ruins to remind us of what has been lost, what the reality was of what was lost, and what we can regain by being conscious of that loss.
If that sounds a bit convoluted, I would say that the whole project of the Neues Museum is about the most self-conscious museum endeavor I have ever encountered. Part of the six-museum complex called Museum Island, the Neues (or new, as it was the "new" museum, after Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s unsurpassed Altes, or "old," museum), was built between 1843 and 1855 to a design by Friedrich August Stüler to house the State’s collections of antiquities and early history. The current display is as much about how those exhibits were assembled, and the fact that they became a way for a unifying German state in the second half of the 19th century to define itself through the discovery of its roots, as it as about the actual artifacts. (Only in the case of the famous Queen Nefertiti bust, which sits by itself in a tall room, have the authorities chosen to ignore the fact that some in Egypt want this portrait, whose popularity probably has as much to do with the queen’s resemblance to Marlene Dietrich as to its intrinsic (and considerable) beauty, back.)
Chipperfield chose to renovate the building, which was bombed out during World War II by the Allies and was a ruin for decades after, by leaving as much as he could of what remained and then inserting new elements where necessary. At times he has mimicked original elements in an abstract form and in concrete: This is most obvious in the grand, symmetrical central staircase. At other times, he has inserted a concrete frame structure hovering inside the original galleries and courtyards, creating a new space more akin to a high-end jewelry store (and I mean this as a sincere compliment, for who is better at displaying precious objects?) than the rather overwhelming forms of the old galleries.
Where enough of the old decoration remained, he has restored it, so that some of the galleries now glow with red walls and painted ceilings. In other cases, he has left stabilized fragments floating on rough plaster or cement. Where nothing remained, the brick that used to hide behind marble or plaster now forms the frameworks for both public spaces and display areas. It creates large rooms whose solemnity Chipperfield lightened with panes of clear glass instead of the missing ceilings.
The result is breathtaking. The new elements are the very essence of what they do and how they are made, representing the ideal of modernist clarity. The restored elements make us aware of the integration of decoration with resolute spatial framing that made Schinkel-esque Neo-Classicism so successful in representing the possibility of building a more cultured and enlightened world through the reimagination of the past. The presence of what was once hidden undercuts the simple ambitions of both the modern and the pre-modern project, making us aware of the beauty of the mundane, while allowing us to see that monuments are only rhetorical gestures.
I wish all historic renovations were this smart and sophisticated. I wish more buildings were such stage sets. The museum's relationship between it's restoration and its new pieces contributes to our awareness of what history means and how we can appreciate its achievements while continuing to use its messages, both overt and hidden, as part of our dialog about who we as a society and culture are today. In its restoration and its new pieces, the Neues Museum is a masterful ruin.