It was 1962 when architect Mies van der Rohe returned from America to take on the National Gallery of Art in Berlin, destined to house artworks from the XX century. The project, proposed “without spending limits” was to be constructed together with the State Library and the Philharmonic — both designed by Scharoun — three buildings symbolizing the city’s rebirth and ready to rise up from behind Postdamer Platz, an area heavily battered by wartime bombing. After the Neue Nationalgalerie’s inauguration in 1968, the project went down in history as a cornerstone of construction, consecrating the creative as a true master of architecture.
This year, the Neue Nationalgalerie of Berlin will reopen its doors fresh off a restoration realized by Sir David Chipperfield. Since 2015, in fact, the museum has been closed to the public in order to begin work on modernizing the structure, including constructive elements and materials used. Since the inauguration, the Gallery hadn’t been closed and after almost 50 years, the time had come to intervene on critical safety deficiencies.
It’s no wonder then that to address the arduous task, those in charge turned to an archistar like Chipperfield, whose portfolio vaunts commissions including the reconstruction of the Neues Museum on Museumsinsel Berlin, the Island of Museums, reopened in 2009, where the architect also designed the James Simon Gallery. Working on an icon of architecture, however, is anything but simple, especially when considering a project whose clear construction and exactness (paraphrasing van der Rohe himself) crystalized a precise concept of architecture that finds its truth in constructive rigor. As the architect Ludwig Hilberseimer once wrote, Mies was an elementarist, whose merit lied in knowing how to reduce great complexity into a few simple and immediately recognizable architectural elements.
The centrality and importance of the building, whose urban intentions must have presented a strong character, are underlined by the podium on which it rests, placing it in a privileged position. Here, the theme of the Hall, a collective space that often coincides with buildings hosting public functions, is constructed with a large covering. Immediately recalling refuge and shelter, historian Marc-Antoine Laugier once referred to this archetypal element as the base of every architectural marvel constructed.
Just like in previous projects for the Sala Bacardi in Santiago (1957) and the Georg Schäfer Museum of Schweinfurt (1960), a ribbed plate 2 meters high defines the square perimeter with each side measuring 64.8 meters. The internal hall stretches 50.4 x 50.4 meters and is flooded with light thanks to its eight evenly spaced supports — cruciform pillars made with welded T profiles arranged symmetrical on the elevations to leave corners free. Around the perimeter, glass walls give the idea that the large Krupp steel plate floats in mid-air. Inside, the large entrance hosts temporary exhibits, where a void is interrupted only by two vertical marble elements housing the ducts. On the floor below, 4 meters underground, the Museum’s halls are organized in a sequence of spaces that, according to professor Renato Capozzi, recall the typical structure of a domus romana with a series of vestibule-atrium tetrastyle peristyle. Although in this case, after having passed the atrium, we find a hypostyle hall that opens onto a patio housing sculptures. It’s clear then to the visitor that even the classic approach to crafting museums has been overturned: the Neue Nationalgalerie responds to neither the organization of the Pinacoteche or the more traditional museums, overcoming all the studies that Mies’ contemporaries were facing.
In a space like this, it’s no wonder the restoration required several years. After the project began on paper in 2012, the museum was closed three years later in order to begin work on the meticulous operations prior to dismantling the building and implementing the restoration conducted by David Chipperfield Architects. Each element was analyzed, catalogued, and restored before being returned to its original place. In addition to the replacement of those damaged or inefficient elements, requirements concerning security, fruition of the works and accessibility were all updated, searching for the right balance between current museum needs and the importance of the Neue as a monument. When the museum opens once more, visitors are sure to enjoy the gallery, just like its first guests did at the inauguration in ’68.