David Chipperfield’s James Simon Galerie in Berlin gears up for summer opening

David Chipperfield’s James Simon Galerie in Berlin gears up for summer opening

Next summer will see the opening of a sixth building on Berlin’s Museum Island, and the first entirely new building there for almost a century. The James Simon Galerie is named after James Simon (1851-1932) who was one of the great patrons of the German arts. He not only collected and donated a great deal of historical art and objects to the Berlin State Museums, but also funded expeditions to Mesopotamia and Egypt – including the one that brought the bust of Nefertiti to Berlin.  

But this new building is not a museum. Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, it will serve as a visitors’ centre for all five museums on the island. The building will provide direct access to the neighbouring Pergamon Museum (home of such treasures as the Ishtar Gate and the Pergamon Altar) and the Neues Museum (home of the Egyptian collection, including that iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti) which was reconstructed by Chipperfield in 2009. The exterior of what appears essentially to be a long, raised colonnade alongside a vast stone staircase belies a surprisingly large interior at ground level and below, which contains a central ticket office and information centre, a cloakroom, museum shop, a café, a 300-seat auditorium and a 700 sq m exhibition space.

The building is made of reconstituted stone with natural stone aggregate blends. Photography: Simon Menges

Urs Vogt, the project architect, describes the James Simon Galerie as ‘landscape architecture’, essentially a ‘welcoming public space’ that allows access and provides visitors with a place to hang out and enjoy the city views, as well as use the facilities before and after entering the museums. It will not be the only entrance and exit – all the museums will retain their current ticket offices and facilities – but it will be the first port of call for large groups and coach parties so, put bluntly, the building is a transit space. One that will relieve the pressure on the historical buildings and help control the flow of the traffic of a projected six million tourists per year.

As such, the materials selected by the architects have been chosen to last, but they are of superb quality and there is a sense that no expense (of the 134 million euro budget) was spared in this respect. The main building is precast concrete with a special aggregate of local marble, sandblasted by hand to give attractive variations in the surface quality. The floors are limestone or dark oak parquet. The huge reinforced glass window panels are framed in bronze, the door handles and handrails are also bronze, and the wood panelling of the shop and cloakroom areas is lavishly-patterned walnut veneer. Additional materials are thick felted wool-covered bench seating and huge floor-to-ceiling Kvadrat grey wool curtains as well as softly burnished copper mesh ceiling panels in the café area.

This luxurious interplay of simple materials, combined with views of the surrounding buildings provided by strategic openings cut into the monolithic concrete, could be seen as signature Chipperfield: the classical historical allusion is powerful but not dictatorial or defined, rather, the modern and past intersect one another continually. §

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