The Neues Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island was designed by Friedrich Stüler, a pupil of Schinkel, and built between 1841 and 1859 to show off the archaeological and scientific prowess of one of Europe’s leading powers. In a way it was Prussia’s answer to Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
The museum houses Egyptian and Pre/Early History archaeological collections and is a centre for active scientific research as well as public dissemination. This duality lay at the heart of the project organization. A unique integration of client and science, together with a close collaboration between Chipperfield’s and that most fastidious of conservation architects Julian Harrap, has resulted in an exceptionally coherent and holistic piece of architecture.
The key architectural aim of the project was to reinstate the original volumes and to repair and restore the parts remaining after the war. The original sequence of rooms was restored by the new spaces thereby creating continuity with the existing structure.
The archaeological restoration philosophy follows the guidelines in the Charter of Venice, respecting the historic structure in its different states of ‘as found’ preservation. The original structure and decoration is emphasized in its spatial context and materiality yet repairs and restorations respond in a clearly articulated but sensitive manner. This is no pastiche.
The same archaeological approach has been extended to the elevations of the building: the rebuilt wing and one corner are done in plain randomly coloured and laid recycled bricks, with windows mirroring though not slavishly copying the originals.
The insertion and integration of a new interior architecture and museum environment has been impeccably judged; its cool modernism a perfect foil to both the exuberant invention of Stüler and the ancient objects on display.
The new spaces are cool and calm but are far from neutral. From the austerity of the Central Staircase Hall to the soaring light filled Egyptian Courtyard, a great variety of spatial experience is achieved whilst maintaining a coherent architectural expression through the controlled palate of material and detailing. Precast concrete is the principal structural medium and the overall result is one of consistency, quality and under-stated beauty. Nothing is left to chance; there are no forgotten or unloved corners here. This is a museum of architectural history as much as one of archaeology.
The Museum Directorate has laudably resisted the temptation to overface the visitor with exhibits. Less is indeed more in both the architecture and the display – lessons for other museums and galleries here.