Angela Merkel gets new neighbour on Museum Island

One critic calls freshly opened James Simon Gallery ‘Berlin’s most expensive cloakroom’

Berlin has no shortage of building sites and, for the last decade, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been living in the middle of one of the biggest.

On Friday afternoon, she strolled home with a little less dirt and noise on her doorstep after opening the first new building on Berlin’s Museum Island in nearly a century.

For the last decade, from her living room window, she has watched the James Simon Gallery rise from the waters of the river Spree: an elongated white structure constructed from a concrete-marble composite by British architect David Chipperfield.

Before Berliners stream in on Saturday for a first glimpse, the first reviews are in – and they’ve been mixed.


Some have welcomed the building as a striking and daring addition to Germany’s cultural landscape; others have dismissed it as the ruination of a Unesco World Heritage site.

300-seater auditorium

One architectural critic sniped that the building – housing a central ticket office, restaurant, shop and 300-seater auditorium – is, at €134 million, “Berlin’s most expensive cloakroom”.

The Süddeutsche daily criticised the building’s riverside facade – dozens of quandrangular pillars, many nine metres high and just 25cm thick, as “resembling upright toothpicks”. But the gallery’s terrace, it conceded grudgingly, offers “pretty views over the city”.

In her opening address, Dr Merkel made no reference to the gallery’s runaway cost or delayed opening, now a tradition in the German capital where, seven years on, a new international airport is still a multibillion-euro money pit.

Instead she suggested the new gallery and Museum Island allowed visitors discover we have “more that unites than divides us”.

Public outrage

“The importance of this cannot be prized highly enough,” she said. In a barely disguised dig at an unnamed leader in Washington, she added: “How seductive – and, at the same time, fatal – it is to close one’s eyes to the complexity of global interdependency and instead create one’s own straightforward world view.”

For architect Chipperfield, Friday’s opening ended a long journey that forced him to redesign the gallery entirely after public outrage over his first design.

Berliners “really hold your feet to the fire”, he said. “It’s painful at the time, but the work is better for it.”

The new building is named after James Simon, a 19th-century Jewish philanthropist whose generous donations to the Museum Island collections – including the celebrated bust of ancient Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti – were struck from the record in the Nazi era.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin