The handover of the keys to the newly restored Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin on Thursday was ultimately a celebration of the building’s esteemed architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Himself a modern art collector whose Chicago apartment featured works by Paul Klee and Picasso, the former Bauhaus director enthusiastically accepted a commission to design a contemporary art gallery in Berlin in the 1960s.
Constructed between 1965 and 1968, the Neue Nationalgalerie, with its highly geometric form and vast glass windows around its signature upper showroom, became an instant classic of high modernist architecture.
After a major refurbishment, it now begins a second life.
As the keys were handed back to the Berlin State Museums that manage the institution alongside the neighboring Kulturforum, much was said of the fact that so little has changed after a six-year renovation. This is due to the painstaking effort by David Chipperfield Architects to first gut and update the heritage-listed building, and to put it back together almost exactly as they found it.
Refurbishment of the museum, seen here in 2017, took twice as long as the original construction of the building
A utopian building
David Chipperfield, who also remodeled the Neues Museum and designed the James Simon Gallery on Berlin’s Museum Island, spoke via video of how Mies van der Rohe was the ideal candidate to create an architectural landmark in postwar Berlin.
“He was an architect capable of a utopian building in a city which needed some utopian thoughts, at a time when it was looking again for a future,” said Chipperfield of Mies’ last major commission — he died in 1969, a year after the Neue Nationalgalerie was completed.
“It is one of his most important works,” he added, saying Mies imbued the structure with “extreme harmony” through “the coordination of structure and space, construction and material, purpose and form.”
“It’s wonderful to be part of this story of this incredible city,” he told DW of his own contribution to the building, along with his practice’s work on various Berlin institutions. But Chipperfield insisted that his renovation is not a work of architecture. “There’s only space for one architect in this building,” he said.
Speaking live at the gallery on Thursday, Germany’s Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters, also emphasized the building’s architectural significance.
“With its large, light-flooded hall and the exhibition rooms in the basement, Mies van der Rohe’s architectural icon now shines in new splendor,” she said. She added that when it reopened on August 22, the gallery will “once again become a magnet for the public.”
“Mies van der Rohe created a universal beacon of classical modernism toward the end of his life’s work,” said Anne Katrin Bohle, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community. “His architecture creates spatial freedom in its purest form [and] paved the way for an entire generation of architects.”
Indeed, the Berlin masterwork is also reminiscent of the German-born architect’s other “International Style” buildings such as Farnsworth House in Illinois, or the pioneering German Pavilion created for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.
Updated but all original
Praise also went to Chipperfield, who remained faithful to this vision by removing, restoring and reinstalling some 35,000 building objects including granite slabs, light fixtures, railings, glass and wooden panels. “Thank you very much David, you did an awesome job,” said Bohle.
The Neue Nationalgalerie was also modernized to meet contemporary standards in terms of air conditioning, fire protection and security. The entire underfloor heating system, and the ventilation system, was renewed.
Chipperfield reiterated that the renewal was “surgical in nature… in order to protect his [the architect’s] vision. We hope to have released the patient to all appearances untouched — just in much better condition.”
“Our responsibility,” he told DW, “was just to repair it and bring it back to what the architect had intended it to be.”
Sculptor Alexander Calder headlines reopening
The reopening on August 22 with also be a major statement of artistic intent, with a new collection of 20th-century art being presented alongside an exhibition on Alexander Calder, the US sculptor known for his abstract kinetic “mobiles” that hang from wires. His outdoor sculpture “Têtes et Queue” (1965) is synonymous with the Neue Nationalgalerie, having been installed for its inauguration.
Having originally been dedicated to acquiring artworks deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, the Neue Nationalgalerie collection today boasts contemporary masterpieces by artists from across Europe and North America, such as Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.
Much of this work can be enjoyed again from August 22 in the German capital, of course depending on COVID restrictions.