Since 2018, the existing structure of the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung has been undergoing renovation and will be expanded with a new annex. The Berlin-based architectural firm Staab Architects won the design competition for the new building ensemble. In the following interview, architect Volker Staab discusses the project’s perks and problems.
Mr Staab, could you describe your first thoughts when you visit the building site?
On my last visit to the site, I was impressed by the sheer volume of the exhibition rooms which we’ve arranged beneath the forecourt and embedded into the terrain along the side. Later, visitors will only be able to experience these rooms from inside since they’ll lie below the surface of the property.
At the beginning of the construction phase, I had a similar spatial experience when the original building was liberated from the subsequent additions and the cladding around the windows. Suddenly, the spatial qualities of the old building came to light – the visual references to the “promenade architecturale” and exterior grounds, the interesting perspectives in the interior.
You’re a multiple award-winning architect whose firm has designed many museums in the past. How significant is the construction of the new Bauhaus-Archiv for you?
It’s a very important project for me. On one hand, it’s because of the subject itself – the Bauhaus – which has played a major role in architecture. On the other, it’s about the location – Berlin – and Walter Gropius. This combination makes it a special project in the long line of museums we’ve planned so far.
How did you approach the project?
We looked at several different aspects. For one, we examined what it truly means to build a Bauhaus museum today. Do we have to stylistically refer to the Bauhaus through its architectural expression? Or are there contextual themes of the Bauhaus that we can tie into? Of course, there are no simple answers to such questions.
What we knew for certain was that we didn’t want to design a building in the Bauhaus style, if there ever was such a thing. Rather, we focused more on what Bauhaus themes might still be relevant today.
So what themes are still relevant? Can you recognise any parallels today to the time of the Bauhaus (1919–1933)?
The eagerness to experiment and the interest in discourse beyond disciplinary boundaries are themes that we can build on. The Bauhaus existed in a time of upheaval when construction became industrialised. This might be comparable to the role that digitalisation plays in construction today. Back then, like today, society was going through a period of radical transition. Today, we’re asking new questions, for example, with respect to the climate. Or the question of how public and open a museum should be. All of that flowed into our deliberations on what this museum should look like.
The Bauhaus-Archiv was originally planned in Darmstadt but ended up being built in Berlin in a rather complex urban environment. How did you manage these challenges?
The piece of property that Berlin could offer the Bauhaus-Archiv at the time was essentially a traffic island between numerous streets. The challenge was to incorporate Gropius’s project into it, even though it had been designed for an entirely different location. In Darmstadt it was supposed to be built on a hill, in Berlin on a piece of level terrain. This discrepancy, which was baked into the design, was evident to the very end. For us, the sketchy entrance situation was our primary focus. The entrance was one level lower at the back of the museum. Perhaps when it was first built, the building made a stronger impression as a standalone structure. But over time – with all the surrounding buildings and towering trees – it had become a place you could hardly find and was barely recognisable as a self-contained space.
At the same time, there were features of the building we wanted to preserve. We wanted to ensure that the large addition wouldn’t block the view of the silhouette with its shed roof. We also wanted to preserve the impact of the elevated ramp to the main entrance, the “promenade architecturale”. Ultimately, we used it to combine the old museum and new annex into an organisational unit by connecting the foyers of both buildings underneath the ramp. The low-set garden next to the ramp would be converted into a central courtyard with both foyers facing each other.
An important feature of the new building is the tower you designed on the forecourt. Not only does it mark the entrance to the museum but also provides more space for future educational projects.
The tower is the most complex structural element of the whole project and serves several functions. It is a beacon, a symbol, but also an address. When visitors arrive at the museum in the future, they will know where to enter – namely, the tower. The tower is also a structure that wouldn’t have been possible to build or calculate 100 years ago in the day of the Bauhaus. The idea was to create an entirely minimised construction made of thin, delicately dancing steel supports, the irregularity and complexity of which can only be rendered by computer. In this way, a new method of architectural design is manifested in the construction of the tower. As a future educational venue, the tower also represents discourse and experimentation – just like the Bauhaus long ago.
All of these different facets, symbolised by the tower, were thrilling to us – its symbolism extending into the city, the symbolism reflected in its construction, and the symbolism with regard to the programmatic focus of the museum.
In view of the grand opening planned in 2025, what are you especially looking forward to?
I imagine it will be a wonderful moment to experience the spatial interplay between the new and the old.
Volker Staab is the founder of Staab Architekten. His architectural firm is renowned for its radical but cautiously planned projects in sensitive urban and rural areas, as well as its novel interpretations of historic landmarks and listed buildings.
You can find more information about Staab Architekten on their company’s website.