The Neuse Museum

Posted on August 30, 2011


If the 21st century has a defining style so far, The Neuse Museum in Berlin could certainly be the face of it. This recent emergent from under the knife of David Chipperfield is considered by many to be his masterpiece. In a time of reclamation and touchy-feely tendencies, when the word ‘vintage’ is grossly over-used and subsequently undermined and countless perfectly good tables are sanded down, re-painted and immediately sanded down again to display varying degrees of inauthenticity, it’s a challenging project. Whilst the public are generally open to the concept, this intangible approach is a very difficult one to carry off successfully but the Neuse Museum demonstrates once and for all how it should be done.

The Neuse is a gracefully seductive host and on entering one is immediately captivated. But we’re not talking red lipstick and short skirts here, this is an old lady after all, so the lobby is respectably low key but it quietly establishes the presence of a successful marriage between new and old and sets a high standard for quality.

Standing amongst the columns of the lobby a not unfamiliar decision must be made; to turn to the side and start a slow, orderly progression through the halls, unravelling as you go, or, go straight for the central steps into the heart of the museum and dip in and out of rooms at will. If you decide to take on the promise offered by the stair, you’ll soon be rewarded as the stairs open up and climb towards the light into the most awe-inspiring event of the journey. The clean white polished concrete deposits you into a vast chamber of exposed brickwork, structure and light. The space speaks for itself and captures the life of the new-incarnation, a sensitive but assertive intervention.

I, however, turned aside and wanting to savour the experience, started the long walk around. The journey is marked quite traditionally with thick, fairly plain, Doric columns at ground floor level progressing up through Ionic to Corinthians on the upper story which are supplemented with new, pre-cast concrete and light-weight steel numbers, all of which reside over an atmospheric brick vaulted basement. It’s difficult to qualify what it is exactly that’s so successful about the place and, drifting around, I questioned the value of Chipperfield’s input and wondered whether it was simply the original building that I was really enjoying. After a while I realised that that question was of course part of the success; the sensitive touch, knowing when to restore, when to expose and when to intervene.

A fantastic material presence has been achieved here, which somehow warms the spirit. From the wonderfully romantic patches of brick revealed beneath crumbling plaster to the meeting of two fresh concrete finishes, one polished, one left rough, there is rich variety everywhere but an uncomplicated picture overall.

Many restoration projects tend to expel time itself whilst preserving a single image. In the case of the Neuse Museum time is allowed to remain inhabitant, and exists not only as now and then but as everything in-between, most notably the period of Berlin’s pounding during the Second World War. All the wear and tear of the last 150 years has contributed to the current building but the key aspect is the honesty with which the signs of this have been instated, surrounded by the latest work, each moment in time sits along side another in a comforting equilibrium.