The architecture of the Neue Nationalgalerie

Image of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin

“An icon of modern architecture”—I sometimes hear myself saying. Normally I am then standing somewhere near the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), pointing at the box made of glass and steel, formerly presented as a draft for the new headquarters of Bacardi in Cuba, but then never constructed due to the upcoming revolution. My companions keep looking at the buildings around us that show a clear connection to the post-war era.

I then sometimes sense questions in the minds of my listeners. Why on earth are we standing next to this confusing intersection of busy roads, near an area which wants to be a square but obviously struggles in doing so. An odd space that is not quite part of the town. You can clearly see Potsdamer Platz behind us (also something for a very special taste) and to the other side Potsdamer Straße, entering a different neighbourhood. Both elements are quite clearly recognized as urban entities. But what about this spot in between?

Looking onto Potsdamer Platz
Looking onto Potsdamer Platz
Image of The square in between Neue Nationalgalerie and Philharmonic Orchestra
The square in between Neue Nationalgalerie and Philharmonic Orchestra

Currently the building of the New National Gallery is under refurbishment, which does not make it the least more attractive. Grass is growing in between the slabs of stone on the surrounding platform, as there are no visitors. And maybe it is this reduction to its constructive essentials that makes it even more interesting to visit the building once more.

What is it that makes this building appear as a very clever example of its own kind? In what way is it a commentary on the history of architecture? And why the devil does it have to stand here in this hopeless spot?

History of the neighbourhood

The arrangement of Berlin was a different one before the war than it is today. The square of Potsdamer Platz was the busiest crossroad of Europe, a pulsating and dynamic hub, regulated by Europe’s first electric signal light. West of this hub, buildings of a new upper middle-class had been erected in the second half of the 19th century. The founding of the new German nation in 1871 caused a fast development in Berlin as well as elsewhere in Germany. The church in the neighbourhood, Saint Matthew, was planned by the father of the New Museum on Museum Island, Friedrich August Stühler. It is in that church that later on Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a member of the resistance against the Nazis—was ordained a priest in 1931. The church is still standing, or should I say standing again. It was heavily damaged in the fights approaching the old government area of Berlin and was put back into functionality in the 1950s.

Image of The church of Saint Matthews at Kulturforum in Berlin
The church of Saint Matthews at Kulturforum in Berlin

The quarter around that church had begun to see some changes before being destroyed in the war. For the new monumental capital called Germania that Hitler and his architect Albert Speer had envisioned, entire buildings had had to disappear. The church itself was going to be dismantled and reconstructed in Spandau. The war brought these developments to a halt and vast parts of Berlin were turned into ruins.

A museum hadn’t existed here before. The artistic and scientific focus of Berlin had been in the historic centre, by the royal palace, on the island in the Spree river, near the university that had started lecturing in 1810. It was in that area that most of the well-known museums had been located.

The war changes everything

However, by the end of the second world war the capital of Germany was a field of debris. After total of 363 air-raids on Berlin, 11 percent of the buildings had been completely destroyed. 8 percent were badly damaged and about 10 percent could be saved. 600,000 of the existing 1.5 million apartments were not inhabitable any longer. Museums and other official buildings shared the same fate.

The art, which in Berlin had started to be a major point of public attraction since the early 19th century, had previously been scattered throughout the town in various bunkers, bank vaults, etc. in order to be protected from the approaching atrocities. As early as 1942 some museums had started to evacuate precious objects.

When the bombing and fighting stopped in 1945, most museums showed major damages, just like any other building in those days. And in 1949 persisting disagreement between the four victorious powers of the war in Europe led to the proclamation of two new states: the Federal Democratic Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic.

The process of returning the art collections to their homes was overshadowed by these days’ political realities. Partly the museums didn’t exist anymore. And partly communication between the players was becoming more and more difficult due to the escalating Cold War. Finally in 1961 it is the Berlin Wall that represents to the inhabitants of Berlin the most insurmountable obstacle.

At the same time, a wish started to become palpable in Berlin to develop a collection of art of the 20th century. The realization of that wish however remained an ambition with the separation into two nations in 1949. From then on, various institutions in the western part of town began with the consolidation of the existing pieces. Finally in 1961 it became clear with the Berlin Wall that a joint collection was not going to be a feasible project. By then, West Berlin had started to look out for a solution.

A new perspective for West Berlin

It is in that context that the New National Gallery comes onto the agenda. The new museum is inaugurated in 1968 after a construction period of three years. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had recycled two old drafts which had then been put together by his nephew (Mies was too old to conduct the construction and only came to Berlin twice during the building process.) The former director of the Bauhaus passed on his vision of a room as well as his name to the new emerging town. The building was to be the focal point for the new development of the Kulturforum near Potsdamer Platz, the square that with the installation of the Berlin Wall now remained within the so-called death strip. This area could easily be seen as the end of the western world, and nonetheless was to become a new centre for the arts and sciences. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the new State Library joined the New National Gallery and other museums of the Kulturforum in that endeavour.

Image of the Philarmonic Orchestra in Berlin from the Neue Nationalgalerie
View of the Philarmonic Orchestra in Berlin from the Neue Nationalgalerie
Image of The façade of the New State Library in Berlin
The façade of the New State Library in Berlin

The New National Gallery as a commentary on architecture

Looking at the modern construction, made of glass and steel (not taking the lower part into account), the connection to antique architecture is not apparent—and at the same time it is. The functional elements of Mies’ pavilion, post and lintel, stand in close analogy to ancient tradition that had also been used by architects of the 19th century. The connection becomes clear when one thinks of the Altes Museum by Schinkel as well as the neighbouring building of the Old National Gallery. The characteristics of the old temple, standing on a podium, columns holding a roof, become evident.

Columns as a constructive element appear in a dominant form in Egypt, where a long-lasting political stability had created a continuity in architectural language as well as artistic representations. Temples in the form of large columned halls emerged. It is that very principle of the use of vertical supports for beams in order to create room that becomes a notable motif in Egypt and is passed on to later cultures.

Greek antiquity adopts the constructive principle of the column, entablature and further constructions for the roof. Nonetheless, Greek temples are less monumental than their Egyptian predecessors. Columns became categorized in different types, emerging in different times and regions of the Greek culture. We speak of these types as “orders” and mainly name the doric, ionic and corinthian order when we speak about the proportion as well as the base and the capital. Roman architecture once more adopted these then Greek principles and added further construction principles in the form of the arch and the vault.

When in the 4th century A.D. the emperor Constantine finally recognizes Christianity as a religion and the prosecution of its members ends, early Christian architecture adopts the basilica architecture as a place for assembly. The ancient, then pagan temples had been constructed with a very different use in mind, where only few priests would enter the building and the common people waited outside. The Christian rite on the other hand was devoted to the congregation of many people and could thus not take place in the old temples. The adoption of the ancient architecture of assembly, the basilica, was going to influence the form of Christian churches until the very day: a columned hall, holding a roof. Every visit to a gothic church in the North of France reminds us of that fact. A regular pattern of strong and sometimes very lean columns that create impressive rooms. Not in the North of France but undoubtedly one of the most impressive examples is the cathedral of Seville in the South of Spain. Even mosques as a type of construction are connected to that principle via the Byzantine architecture.

Renaissance architecture and the emerging theory of construction and the mentioned orders carry the principle of post and lintel into the modern times. Later on Classicism, emerging in England and then spreading throughout Europe, refers to renaissance itself and also to Antiquity. Examples of that time in Berlin are the Brandenburg Gate by Carl Gotthard Langhans and the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

It is then the second director of the Bauhaus school of Germany, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who adapts this essential principle of European architectonics, combining it with the principles of functionality as developed by Bauhaus. The construction of the New National Gallery refers to the Old National Gallery, the latter making use of classical temple architecture with a gable façade and a pseudoperipteral structure. At the same time Mies van der Rohe presents the principle in its pure form. A flat roof, held up by eight supports and thus creating an otherwise not structured room. The New National Gallery refers to this simple principle and makes it the centre of attention. The simple room, that renders an inside and outside to the spectator.

This building was envisioned to become a temple for modernity in a very classical conception, thus bringing together the three terms that may serve as a summary for the connection that the box of glass and steel creates: #temple #classic #modern

Today, the building is being refurbished by David Chipperfield Architects and remains closed to the public until 2020. Again, as in the 1960s, Mies’ nephew is going to be part of the project. Until then, take a walk and have a look at the temple from the outside.

Image of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin
Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin
Image of Neue Nationalgalerie seen from behind
Neue Nationalgalerie seen from behind