Domus 926

Sixty years after it closed and six years after the project to restore it began, the Neues Museum in Berlin will be fully operational from October 2009, putting on public display its valuable collection of Egyptian artefacts and other objects from antiquity. The case of the Neues Museum is unusual from an architectural point of view. According to David Chipperfield, who has been in charge of work since winning the competition in 1997, he has had to deal with an undefined object, something halfway between a new project, a restoration and the fitting-out of a museum.The architectural condition of the Neues Museum before the restoration was one of absolute devastation. It was heavily bombed in allied raids during World War II and was subsequently abandoned for the whole of the intervening period – almost as if it were a kind of post-Arcadian ruin. This created various complications for Chipperfield in terms of the architectural language he had to use. The British firm chose to work with the particular and individual, with the slight alteration, adopting a double-bind intersecting the different levels of the project. This approach is very similar to the precise, painstaking work of an amanuensis who transcribes a text from one era to another, transliterating it through his or her own interpolations and large stretches of marginalia. The result, as we were able to see in the empty museum, is an intervention with its own precise logic. As a project, it recovers a past which had practically been reduced to mere materials and memory, bringing it back into use through an efficient emphasis on the original structure. The thinking behind the design for the Neues Museum can be summed up by the rejection of the architect-centred, show-stopping style characteristic of recent museum architecture. Chipperfield’s philosophy of moderation won out over the pyrotechnics of Frank Gehry, who was beaten in the competition in Berlin in 1997, despite having just emerged from the media circus surrounding Bilbao’s new museum. The work carried out on the ruins of the Neues Museum complies with the golden rules of the good museum: it must avoid becoming a work of art in itself, and it must always come second to the needs of the – much more significant – exhibits. In the case of the Neues Museum, the alteration of the old structure to enable the building of the new one took place through a low-intensity strategy. This produced satisfactory results while avoiding the creation of an overburdened design for the exhibition spaces that will house the objects themselves. It will be interesting in October to see whether Chipperfield’s close attention to the structure and its symbolic values has also produced spaces that are effective enough to silence the whispering and controversy once and for all.