New and ancient worlds united in daring facelift for museum


BERLIN DIARY: Visiting the rebuilt Neues Museum in Berlin is a dizzying historical experience

BARE BRICK has never been so exciting. Exactly 70 years after it closed, and after decades as a rain-soaked wartime ruin, Berlin’s “Neues Museum” reopens today after a daring €212 million facelift.

The rebirth of the 19th-century building, in the hands of British architect David Chipperfield, completes the reconstruction of Berlin’s Museum Island complex, and returns to her original German home the 3,000-year-old plaster bust of Nofretete, the Egyptian Sun Queen.

Stepping into the Neues Museum is a dizzying historical journey. First and foremost, the building brings together Berlin’s collections of pre- and early history and the Egyptian Museum. Visitors can celebrate, too, the rebirth of the original building, completed in 1850 to designs by Friedrich August Tüler and heavily bombed in the second World War.

Finally, it is the simultaneous deconstruction and metamorphosis of the 19th-century building under Chipperfield’s respectful, firm modern touch.

“The ‘new’ Neues Museum is very different to the original building. This is now a house of archaeology in itself,” said an ecstatic Matthias Wemhoff, head of the prehistoric collection.

“It’s a memorial to the 19th century ideal of preserving antiquity and, in the building’s scars, one sees the betrayal of that trust in the last century.” Chipperfield won the competition to rebuild the museum in 1997 with a plan that promised to restore the dignity of the surviving structure while filling in the structural gaps without imitating what was lost.

The first ground-floor rooms are historical echo chambers. The 2,500 year-old mummies and hieroglyphic grave panels are housed in rooms that typify how ancient Egypt was presented to curious Europeans in the late 19th century. To that end, Chipperfield’s team has restored the Egyptian murals, stunning indigo-blue ceilings and clay tiles.

The Neues Museum curators have embraced the Chipperfield concept, placing some of their oldest exhibits in the newest rooms. The experiment works beautifully, thanks to a spacious, generous system of display cases.

If anything, the restored rooms are so atmospheric, filled with their own palpable history, that they come dangerously close to overshadowing the exhibits.

That’s quite an achievement considering the quality of Egyptian, Greek and Syrian works on display, most of which come from the collection of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the ruins of Troy.

Queen Nofretete, the museum’s big draw, has wisely been given a room to herself, a shadowy chamber topped with a domed homage to the Pantheon in Rome.

Moving to the first floor reveals new “in-between” rooms and courtyards, reconstructed spaces with walls of elegant, recycled handmade brick.

Then there are entirely new rooms: cool, elegant spaces with polished panels made from a white concrete-Saxon marble mixture. This custom-made material is used, too, in Chipperfield’s major concession to modernity, the main staircase.

As striking as it is controversial, the staircase reigns supreme in the once-majestic main hall – stripped by war and the elements of its original ornamentation.

The staircase, with its sleek lines and obtuse angles, has divided opinion so much that a citizens’ action group is planning to boycott tonight’s opening. They view the staircase and other modern elements as publicly funded vandalism.

Already the conversation piece of the reborn museum, the staircase seems a just reward for Chipperfield’s intuitive, selfless architectural duties in the rest of the building.

So, too, the museum facade: the plaster that still clung to the bricks in 1945 has been preserved, often riddled with bullet holes, the rest is bare brick.

In hindsight, the Chipperfield concept – to respect the old and celebrate the new – fits like a glove.

Seeing this concept through to its conclusion, however, is the hard-earned prize of a decade of exhaustive meetings, a bold artistic triumph over committee thinking.

Visitors to the “new” Neues Museum will need at least two visits at the very least to do justice to this masterpiece. David Chipperfield has resurrected a very German, neo-classical house by giving it a thoroughly un-German, perfectly imperfect makeover. The “new” Neues Museum is a truly European Gesamtkunstwerk, an integrated work of art as fragmented and as whole as human history itself.