Photography: Rory Gardiner
Location: Kulturforum, Berlin
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) is part of the cultural center Kulturforum, situated between the Landwehr Canal, Potsdamer Platz and Tiergarten Park in Tiergarten, central Berlin. The site was once a residential area built in the 19th century but parts of it were torn down by the Nazis to give place to Hitler and Speers vision of a new Berlin, Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania).
After World War II and the division of Berlin most of the cultural buildings had ended up on the East German side of the wall. As a result of this plans of making a new cultural center for West Berlin started in the 50s. Kulturforum was to become a modernist answer to Museum Island and the New National Gallery to become its centerpiece.
Mies van der Rohe was invited to design the museum in 1961. However the idea behind the building's design originated from an earlier project of Mies. Five years before, Mies had been commissioned to design a new office for Cuban liquor brand Bacardi, in their hometown of Santiago de Cuba. The design he proposed, a large roof plate supported by two columns on each
side, although different in scale, and in concrete instead of steel, was almost identical to design he would later propose for the New National Gallery.
The Bacardi project was abandoned in 1960, but by then Mies had already done numerous scale model studies of the construction principle, which he then got use for in the New National Gallery.
The building has obvious classical references - standing on a podium like a Greek temple overlooking the street. It is said to be an homage to Schinkel’s neoclassical Altes Museum (Old Museum) completed in 1828 on Museum Island.
The main gesture of the building is without a doubt the upper exhibition hall and the giant floating 1,8 m thick, 65 m square, black painted steel roof plate, resting on two cruciform steel pillars on each side leaving its corners free. The glass walls and the open floor plan create a space that effortlessly floats between inside and outside under a seemingly levitating ceiling. To make this space possible Mies put three fourths of the building's 10 000 sq m program submerged inside the podium, including all service areas, offices, exhibitions spaces, café, shop etc. getting natural light only from the Sculpture Garden in the west.
The New National Gallery houses 20th-century Modern Art including Cubism, Expressionism, the Bauhaus and Surrealism and works from artists like Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky.
In April of 1967, Mies who had just turned 81, visited the building site to see the 1250 ton roof lifted into place by 8 hydraulic jacks. When later being asked to make a statement he said:
"It was agreed that nobody would speak more than five minutes. What humbug that was! I want to thank the men who worked the steel, and the ones who did the concrete. And when the great roof raised itself up without a sound, I was amazed!!" (1)
Mies who lived and worked in Chicago was not able to attend the official inauguration of the building when finished one and a half years later and he passed away in august 1969 less than a year after the building was completed.(1) Neue Nationalgalerie was Mies last major project and the only commission he got from the government of West Germany. Mies started his architectural practice in Berlin in 1912 and with the Neue Nationalgalerie he now got the chance to close the circle.
The monumental structure can be seen as the final statement of Mies lifelong architectural ambition - as a temple of modernism and of floating space and light – rather than a temple of art as it has also been called.
The architecture, from totality of the vast floating roof, to the smallest details seem to strive for a purity so refined that even the art it was built to house easily gets in conflict with it. When asked about difficulties with using the main exhibition hall Mies commented:
“It’s such a large hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.” (1)
Perhaps this final work of one of modernisms founders stand as much as a symbol of modernism as a symbol of its end. With “form follows function” no longer referring to the building’s content but to the idea of the building itself. A new formalism.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is now closed for at least four years of renovation led by David Chipperfield Architects who are now working to restore the building after almost 50 years of use.
(1) Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition by Franz Schulze