On the occasion of the architectural competition in 2015, Jürgen Tietz takes a look at the successful design by Staab Architekten and the journey to a new museum building.
Everything always turns out all right in the end. If it isn’t all right, then of course it’s not the end yet. This is probably what the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin has been telling itself over the past few years – with the museum’s director, Annemarie Jaeggi, and her team striving year after year to ensure that the museum, which is bursting at every seam, will finally receive the extension it has urgently been needing. It is a goal that already seemed to be just within reach 17 years ago. The Japanese architectural office SANAA, headed by Pritzker prizewinners Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima, won the first competition to plan an extension for the museum. But their design remained only a design: one more chapter in the continuing chronicle of the unbuilt city of Berlin.
But finally in 2015, both the will and above all the financial resources needed to create the new building have become available – a total of € 56.2 million, with € 21.5 million going to the renovation of the existing listed museum building and € 34.7 million to the extension. And the first prize has been awarded, for a convincing design, to a museum architect who is both acclaimed and experienced in the field – Volker Staab, who already took part in the first competition in 2005. So it seems that after many long years, everything is finally going to turn out all right for the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung after all.
With its abstract compositions consisting of white cubes, the Bauhaus changed modern architecture in the twentieth century more fundamentally than any other architectural trend that came after it. It is for good reason that the few more or less original Bauhaus buildings that were erected in Weimar and Dessau in the 1920s are today regarded as incunabula of the avant-garde – despite all of the alterations and repairs to them that have been made. When the Bauhaus in Berlin was closed at the start of the Nazi dictatorship, the great experiment with a different, integrated form of art education in Germany came to an end for the time being. But the spirit of the adventure they had been part of continued its influence through the work of the major figures involved – particularly in America, where both the founding director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and also its last director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, continued their careers. After the end of the Second World War, they returned to Berlin on two occasions with architectural designs. The results were two world-ranking museums – the New National Gallery by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Bauhaus-Archiv, based on a design by Walter Gropius. The two buildings are located only a good kilometre apart. They both were showing signs of age and needed to be renovated and at least partly modernized
Staab’s design for Berlin is therefore a ‘stroke of good fortune’, said Regula Lüscher, Swiss-born former Director of Urban Development in Berlin during the award ceremony. She had for many years been eagerly trying to bring some of the courageousness and quality of Helvetian architectural culture to Berlin’s urban planning and architecture. Admittedly, Volker Staab has no need of that.
The architect, who was born in Heidelberg in 1957 and teaches in Braunschweig, has long since become an authority in the field of German architecture in his own right – particularly in connection with museum buildings. The numerous museum buildings he has designed range from the New Museum in Nuremberg (1991–1999), the Georg Schäfer Museum in Schweinfurt (1997–2000) and the New Gallery in Kassel (2005–2012) to the fine little art museum in Ahrenshoop and the extension of the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, which opened in the summer of 2015. It is almost alarming how regularly his museum designs emerge from competitions as the victors. And these successes represent one thing above all: recognition of the high aesthetic quality of his concepts and their ability to function well in both urban-planning and museum terms. Again and again, Staab has developed his ideas in an intensive engagement with the existing situation – testing his ability to respond to a different context in each case. It is a test that he has passed with bravura in Berlin as well.
When I had an opportunity to interview him for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) some time ago, it was precisely this approach to the architectural task and the location that I was interested in. And his response at that time also seems to be helpful for understanding his most repeated competition success: “Our projects always start with a collection of materials. We put these together in order to find out what the specific characteristic of the architectural task is. For example, the specific quality may be the location itself, with the characteristics of its urban setting, its scale, its material properties, or the traces of history it contains. But it can also include aspects of the content of the architectural task that go beyond that. Our work then consists of distilling these very different facets within the framework of the design process.”
In his design for the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, Staab has rigorously met the specifications for the competition in a site that is certainly not a simple one. Located on the Landwehrkanal, the narrow tongue of the museum area between Lützowufer, Klingelhöferstraße and Von-der-Heydt-Straße is enclosed by constantly noisy traffic on three sides. The task was to convert the existing building, which had long since become too small, for use by the archive, along with generous space for events and a viewing depository, while new exhibition areas were to be created with an area of around 7,000 square metres in the extension building. The competition specifications stated that the existing listed building was to be renovated ‘while preserving its architectural quality, its characteristic appearance and the heritage value of its substance’ and that it was to be made more energy-efficient. The special quality of Staab’s design in Berlin is the masterly mixture of architectural naturalness with which it connects to the existing building, along with an intelligent accentuation that gives the museum added functional and urban value. It is no surprise, therefore, that the jury chaired by Hilde Léon unanimously voted him the winner out of a total of 41 submissions.
But what is it about Staab’s design that is so convincing?
Staab’s idea is marked by the way in which it takes several aspects into account and brings them together as a unit. It preserves the integrity of the existing listed building by largely subordinating the new building to it – literally, in fact, by placing it at a lower level – while at the same time the new building is fused with it to form a structural unit. On Klingelhöferstraße, Staab has formulated a new visual focus at a suitable distance from the striking shed roofs of Gropius’s exhibition halls. It is a tall, five-storey tower, which the jury acclaimed as having an ‘almost delicate’ effect. In the future, the impression it creates will also project into the inhospitable street area.
Behind the glass encasement of the tower, consisting of sun-blocking glazing and internal shading, there are slim steel supports that are intended to ‘dance’. It will be a challenge to implement them in as fine, delicate and elegant a form as the design promises, in order to give the building its discreet, sculptural overall effect. This structural experiment represents a continuation of the Bauhaus idea in the best possible sense, since the Bauhaus itself must be regarded as an experimental architecture laboratory.
In the future, the museum will have an easily recognizable entrance via the ground floor of this shining glass tower, a new landmark in Berlin – and a counterpart for the old access ramp that leads into the museum’s interior. In addition to serving as the entrance, the glass tower is also intended to feature a digital studiolo and facilities for the museum’s educational services (on the second and third floors), as well as a lounge. Revision work on the design – which will now have to be developed further in dialogue with the museum, as the future user – may possibly be needed, as in other areas of the new building
With its triad of materials in glass, smoothed exposed concrete and steel, a combination that is also used in the adjoining one-storey block along Klingelhöferstraße, the new building fits in well with the lighter existing building, while at the same time discreetly distinguishing itself from it. At the end of this new low-level block, visitors will be welcomed in a cafe accessible to the public. Under a seven-metre high ceiling, the cafe is intended to provide a view of the existing listed building, even without the need for a museum visit.
Future visitors will also be able to walk from the tower into the basement storey, which adjoins the existing building in a U-shape. This structure also creates a new central atrium with a water pool. Connected to the higher-level areas outside via steps, the atrium forms the spatial core of the design. It is a protected, almost intimate location. Together with the new exhibition spaces, it gives rise to a kind of modern cloister, a courtyard building with a unique atmosphere in which old and new are harmoniously combined. A slightly rising ramp on the south provides another link between the two parts of the building. Inside the museum, it will provide a direct connection to the present entrance hall.
With its closed rear walls, the U-shaped basement storey for the exhibition level is deliberately shut off from the building’s noisy surroundings – but despite the density of the site, it gives visitors an unobstructed view of the inner courtyard. These new exhibition spaces in the museum are to be used to present the unique holdings of Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv – in the best possible conditions in terms of air-conditioning and exhibition methods. It will be possible to separate off individual areas for special exhibitions and travelling exhibitions.
As an architectural task, museum extensions have now been in high demand for many years – and not only in Germany. There are many reasons for this: increasing numbers of visitors, constantly expanding holdings in collections, changes in the ways in which museums present and convey their collections, and escalating conservational requirements are only a few of the aspects involved in this new flourishing. But architectural tasks that affect existing museum buildings are very different from ‘normal’ extension and conversion work. The reason for this is that most museum buildings can already be regarded as architectural works of art themselves and were seen in this way by those who created them. Engaging with such high-quality works of architectural art can thus lead to quite varied results. In the worst case, the old and new buildings may prove to be mutually negating.
For this reason, tremendous experience and a special sensitivity to artistic design are needed in order to enter into dialogue between old and new on an equal footing, so that neither the new element nor the old are injured by one another. The fact that for Volker Staab ‘what is radical or explicit is not a quality in itself’, as he mentioned during our interview for the NZZ, is a promising aspect here. Instead, what he aims for is ‘to define the concept of context as broadly as possible.’ He is well aware that there is always a risk of compromise in this. ‘What I am still always looking for is an uncompromising element – but without simply minimizing the complex cosmos of the contextual conditions in the process.’ In his design for the Bauhaus-Archiv, he seems to have come very close to achieving this ideal.
But his architecture at the same time stands for a conception of modernism that differs from that of Gropius. It has become more mature, more commanding and more tranquil. It is not agitatedly dictating its effect to the location any more; instead, it enters into dialogue with it. It leaves it space to breathe
And there is more: in his idea for the extension of the Bauhaus-Archiv, Staab has given Berlin a blueprint for high quality in an extension building that will need to be matched in the city’s next large museum competition – with the Museum of 20th Century fitted in between Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery on Potsdamer Straße. It will need to be just as commanding, restrained, but nevertheless striking as Staab’s extension to the Bauhaus-Archiv: a stroke of good fortune for modernism, for the Bauhaus-Archiv, and also for Berlin.
The article was first published in the Bauhaus-Archiv’s volume „Moving forward“ in 2015 and has been updated.