Rising From the Ruins of War, Neues Museum in Berlin Mixes Old and New

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ inside the museum

David Chipperfield turned a pile of rubble into a masterpiece of renovation and rehabilitation.

We have long been fans of Carl Elefante’s mantra “the greenest building is the one already standing” and have promoted renovation, restoration, revitalization and repurposing of buildings. But at the Neues Museum in Berlin, David Chipperfield has shown an entirely new approach to reconstruction. The project was completed in 2009 but I had a chance to visit on a recent trip to Berlin.

museum after war

Museum exterior after bombing/Public DomainThe Neues, originally designed by Friedrich August Stüler in 1855, was almost bombed flat in World War II. It was on Museum Island, which ended up on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall, and for some reason was left as a ruin instead of being demolished. After the wall fell and the city merged into one again, David Chipperfield won a design competition to restore it, except he didn’t do a traditional restoration to what it was before, but essentially built on top of the ruin. This did not make everyone happy. According to Michael Kimmelman, writing in the New York Times, many Germans objected to what they called “ruin nostalgia” and wanted it rebuilt the way it was.

But Mr. Chipperfield’s museum looks so beautiful and is so eloquent that it short-circuits doubt and criticism. Germans who complained over the years about “ruin nostalgia” (they were the real nostalgists) said that the country, by association with such a symbolic site, shouldn’t continue to be held hostage to the worst episode in German history. Better, they argued, rebuild the Neues Museum as it originally looked, from scratch, without all the bullet holes and rotting columns.

Jonathan Glancey picks up the theme in the Guardian:

There were those who argued that the museum should be restored to exactly how it had been. Others wanted a modern whitewashed affair with plenty of neutral gallery space, to help the artworks hold their own against the architecture. Some simply objected to the idea of a British architect working on such an important German building. But the judges were won over by Chipperfield, who brought in another British architect, conservation specialist Julian Harrap, to help him create what can only be described as a piece of architectural sorcery: a beguiling mixture of the restored and the new that should silence most, if not all, of his detractors.

And what a job it was. There is the central stair as originally built:

Original stair

Original grand stair/Public Domain

Here it is, after the bombing:

Stair after bombing

stair after bombing/Public Domain

With the rubble cleaned out:

stair cleaned out

Stairwell cleaned out, via David Chipperfield/via

As reconstructed by Chipperfield, with the exposed brick on the sides and his new stairway inserted:

New stair inserted

© David Chipperfield

My photo from the top of the stairs looking back.

from top of stairs

Lloyd Alter/ view from top of stairs/CC BY 2.0

In other parts of the building, fragments were picked up out of the rubble and reassembled. Here was a spectacular structure of domes built on top of iron frames:

Domes on metal frames

Lloyd Alter/ Domes on metal frames/CC BY 2.0

Here they were reassembled with pieces of fresco:

Drawing of ceiling

© David Chipperfield

I wish I had taken more photos, but the significance of what I saw really didn’t sink in until after I had left and thought about it for a while.

column with bullet holes

Lloyd Alter/ column with bullet holes, plaster and brick/CC BY 2.0

I can see why some might think doing this kind of restoration is a little bit close to home, a mix of ruin and bullet holes. But it is so evocative, rising from the dead. Kimmelman thought so, too, noting that “the Neues Museum isn’t Lazarus exactly, but it’s almost a miracle. And with it Berlin has one of the finest public buildings in Europe.”


© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

It is also one of the most beautiful and challenging restorations I have ever seen, anywhere.