The Architecture of Museums

Blog — 05 Feb 2024
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

The highlight of a recent trip to Berlin was re-visiting the Neue Nationalgalerie. It is the first time I have seen it since the extensive and meticulous refurbishment by David Chipperfield Architects, a 4 year £120m project that set out to solve the original buildings inherent problems. These were both curatorial and physical. The functional needs of the gallery, such as art handling, were not prioritised in the original design, and the building fabric had inherent problems, lack of movement joints meant that the glass regularly cracked and there were also condensation issues. Chipperfield has resolved these issues with skill and care, even the matt black paint has been re-applied to the steelwork by hand.

Mies van der Rohe’s building is an example of the international style at its most pure. Whilst Mies chose the site, it is in many ways contextless. The building is an object, a pavilion on a raised plinth which clearly references the archetypal setting of the classical temple. When it was built in 1968 the city was still divided and this area, “the Kulturforum,” was seen by the West German government as an opportunity to place western ideological ideas and freedom of speech as close to the East Berlin border as possible. The gallery is in stark contrast to the organic expressionist architecture of Hans Scharoun’s Philarmonie and library, unfortunately the three buildings fail to generate a dynamic cultural space. Indeed like much of Berlin, it is the motor car that seems to define the public realm with a network of four lane roads passing through the site. For Germany’s least German city it is amazing how the car still dominates its landscape.

Smithfield General Market

Back in London I visited the Museum of London’s new home at the western end of Smithfield market. As the museum director Sharon Ament pointed out, the two buildings it will occupy were built at historically optimistic moments in time, the late Victorian period and the 1960s. Work is progressing well and the bones of the spaces are now visible. Once again the restoration has been meticulous and the substantial budget reflects that.

It seems completely appropriate that the new museum should be housed in buildings that were so integral to the life and functioning of London. We are lucky to still have them, it was only in 2008 that Thornfield Properties proposed the wholesale demolition and redevelopment of these buildings, thankfully this was thrown out by the then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears. Whilst we are fortunate that the KPF designed scheme never came to fruition, it will be interesting to see what happens to the rest of the historic market buildings. Hopefully, the City of London will think beyond a banal retail led scheme like Covent Garden or Spitalfields. Both of these examples demonstrate that once the original function of a market is banished the raison d’etre for the district it defines disappears too. Gentrification is inevitable, which to some extent is well on the way in this part of Farringdon.

The 1960’s Poultry Hall is perhaps the more interesting of the two buildings. Unlisted, it was designed by T.P.Bennet and completed in 1963. The defining feature is the concrete elliptic paraboloid shell roof designed by Arup. It’s 69m x 38m form encloses the hall touching the four corners so delicately that it appears to float. The concrete shell is generally 75mm thick increasing to 150 mm at the edges. Just as Mies pushed his structure to the limits in Berlin this is a structural tour de force, it was and maybe still is the largest clear span domed roof in Europe.

Poultry Hall

It will be interesting to see how this space is occupied, big span spaces do not always make great galleries, as Mies demonstrated in Berlin and the Millennium Dome showed us in London. This space will eventually house a sector called “Imagined Time”, let’s hope that the curators imagination is as ambitious as the Arup roof structure.