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Making a Minimalist Statement

- David Chipperfield brings a meticulous Modernist sensibility to his renovation of Berlin’s Neues Museum, as well as new structures around the globe

One of the most celebrated events in museum architecture in recent years turned out to be, oddly enough, a restoration. Berlin’s World War II–damaged Neues Museum was rebuilt under the direction of English architect David Chipperfield, finally ending its 60 years as a roofless war ruin flanking the grand Pergamon.

With the museum’s reopening in October 2009, the city’s pre- and early-history and Egyptian collections, including the 3,300-year-old bust of Nefertiti, the “Mona Lisa of Berlin,” were back in place in their mid-19th-century home on Museum Island.

The result of a 12-year, $250 million effort, the rebuilt museum was hailed by Berlin architectural historian Kristin Feireiss as “the building that finally teaches the Germans the meaning of their history.”

It is a long-awaited vindication for Chipperfield, who in 1994 had run as a youthful dark horse for this prize commission. When he was chosen over Frank Gehry, then at the height of his reputation in Europe, in a widely publicized 1997 runoff, it stunned an art world that had barely heard of Chipperfield.

Today there is a changing of the guard in British architecture, with Chipperfield’s minimalist faction taking the lead as the big personalities Richard Rogers and Norman Foster approach their 80s. In February Chipperfield will receive the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s lifetime achievement award, the Royal Gold Medal. His Turner Contemporary Gallery opens in April in Margate, England. Explaining Chipperfield’s rise, London historian Charles Jencks observes, “Every 25 years we have a classical revival. It is inevitable. This time round, minimalism à la Chipperfield is the new classicism.” He adds, “Besides, Chipperfield is a very nice man.”

Chipperfield represents the unflashy antidote to the expressive tendencies that dominated museum architecture until lately. With his crisply delineated buildings in the recognizable forms of Modernism, he has become the architect of choice for many private galleries and small and midsize museums. Recent and ongoing projects—the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in England, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Menil Collection expansions in the United States, and work in Berlin—were showcased in his extensive retrospective “Form Matters,” at London’s Design Museum last winter.

As a young architect, Chipperfield, who was born in 1953, worked for both Rogers and Foster. Then, in 1984, he opened his own office in London, with an accompanying gallery. The name of the gallery, No. 9, after the hardest pencil in the designer’s toolbox, suggests the uncompromising minimalism of his approach. At the same time, he was teaching in Germany, where he was appreciated for his intellectual rigor and won clients for private galleries in Düsseldorf and Berlin. But work in Britain was slow in coming.

With hindsight, Chipperfield’s involvement in tradition and familiar vernacular buildings reads as a rebuttal to the fashions that would dominate London beginning in the ’80s. He was pointing away from the cult of novelty and the sculptural ambitions of such contemporaries as Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.

Says Chipperfield, “There is a danger when every building has to look spectacular, to look like it is changing the world. I don’t care how a building looks if it means something, not to architects, but to the people who use it.”

One important, and early, London patron, sculptor Antony Gormley, would agree. Chipperfield designed him a house in 1996 and a studio building in 2003. Gormley recalls, “The time I spent working with David was one of the best things I have ever done.” The Gormley Studio exemplifies Chipperfield’s meticulous use of materials and fixtures in a prosaic structure. Stylistically, it is a familiar type of building. With interior top-lit bays, it has the sawtooth roofline common among the sheds in the surrounding industrial neighborhood. Similarly, the architect’s River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames (1998) plays on the silhouettes of rural buildings. Simply put, where works by Gehry and Libeskind inspire comparisons with flowering plants or spacecraft, Chipperfield’s look like other buildings.

“David’s genius is his modesty,” says Gormley. “He told me he would build me a studio that I might have found on my own. But a building that works as beautifully as this does not exist—I spent two and a half years looking for one, so I know.” Gormley points out, “He is a very careful architect. He listens and won’t take risks, making mistakes that the client will then have to live with. Other architects take these risks.”

In the United States, Chipperfield has been sought out by city officials looking to revitalize districts with low-cost cultural buildings that will not eclipse their surroundings. This kind of thinking was behind the Anchorage Museum expansion (2009); the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa (2005); and the Des Moines Public Library (2006).

The Neues Museum has turned out to be the test and triumph of Chipperfield’s career. It strained the diplomatic skills and English decency for which he is famous. Berlin’s architectural activists, correctly fearing that he would not deliver a faithful replica of the ornate 1850s Neues Museum, campaigned against him for a dozen years.

The museum was “the eye of the storm,” Chipperfield says, referring to the 20-year debate over how to rebuild the German capital. “It is the last public building, of any size, that was still visibly damaged.”

He adds, “Museum Island was the scene of fiercest fighting against the Russians in the final days of the war. You would have had to have bombed the British Museum and left it in ruins for 60 years to have something equivalent.”

It might be viewed as ironic that a profusely decorated historical building now looms so large in the career of this avowed Modernist. In fact, the faded Victorian-era interior is an excellent complement to Chipperfield’s bold forms and careful detailing. The space delivers the sort of drama the architect would not have permitted himself, if history had not created it for him.

The original building, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s pupil Friedrich August Stüler, was a lavish showcase for 19th-century Berlin’s crafts—ceramics, mosaics, gilding, fresco painting, brickwork, and metalwork. Murals depicting civilization’s progress from Greek times onward coursed up and down the walls of the three-story stair hall, and the celebrated Egyptian galleries were furnished with the replica of a temple.

Chipperfield, working with restoration specialist Julian Harrap, decided not to restore the sumptuous interiors or neoclassical facade to their original level of finish. With a third of the museum to be rebuilt, the architects juxtaposed new construction in a concrete, wood, and metal minimalist idiom with galleries and an exterior that still show war damage.

To avoid the “meaningless preservation of floating fragments of decoration,” Chipperfield says, he enhanced only the strongest surviving element in each room—the intact mosaic floors in the Roman gallery, for example, and the cast-iron ceiling on the top floor. While the atmosphere varies from one gallery to the next, the totality gives visitors a strong sense of the original building’s proportions.

Chipperfield’s opponents, however, believed that nothing short of a literal reconstruction of the 1859 building would be respectful. “After the war,” he explains, “when museums in Munich and elsewhere were rebuilt, the East Germans couldn’t afford to do the same in Berlin. Now, when there is the will to rebuild, a new ethic has emerged that wants to remind Germany of its painful past and won’t let them repair and restore it to beauty and perfection.”

Chipperfield has had 15 years to sort out his thinking on the issue. “It’s not 1945 anymore,” he says with obvious emotion. “The building had taken on architectural value since then through time and wear.”

“When we found it,” the architect continues, “it had an authenticity that was very powerful. People cannot help but be moved by this authenticity, in a world where so little is authentic. The question was how to preserve the physical strength that we had inherited.”