New David Chipperfield–Designed Addition to Berlin’s Museum Island Set to Open

Wrapped with a stark minimalist colonnade, the James Simon Gallery blends a Modernist aesthetic into the storied Neoclassical architecture of Germany’s national museum hub.

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The James Simon Gallery is sandwiched between the Neues Museum and the Kupfergraben canal, which splinters off the Spree River. The gallery is across the street from the Altes Museum. Seen here: a view of the main entrance. © Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects

“Not so, Mr. Chipperfield!” ran a headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2006. According to German critic Heinrich Wefing, Berlin’s cherished Museum Island was “threatened with disaster” by the British architect’s plans for the new James Simon Gallery, a proposed visitor center that would provide services (including ticketing) and hospitality for those visiting the island’s five museums. The public didn’t approve either, and a petition against the design brought the project to a halt in 2007.

But Germans, Berliners in particular, abound in patience when it comes to David Chipperfield. His work on the Neues Museum (also on Museum Island, located adjacent the proposed James Simon Gallery) took some 16 years to complete. The end result was so good that, when it opened, 35,000 people visited the museum over three days—despite it then lacking any art or amenities.

Thanks to that project, Chipperfield’s plans for the James Simon Gallery were granted a second chance, albeit pending revisions. Once again, Berliners’ patience has paid off nicely: Some 20 years after it was first unveiled and ten years after foundation work began, the gallery will be opened Friday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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The new building, which takes its name from the Jewish German art patron James Simon, occupies the site previously occupied by the Karl Friedrich Schinkel–designed Packhof building. Despite its designation, the “gallery” is more focused on providing amenities that are lacking in (or inadequately service) the older surrounding Altes, Neues and Pergamon museums. “The design and concept were born out of a much bigger discussion on what Museum Island needed,” said Chipperfield, who began work on a masterplan for the island in 1999. Speaking a press conference, the British architect added that, “museums are closed boxes and represent the static nature of the museum institution. A new, more dynamic, building was needed.”

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The gallery’s plinth and colonnade, with the canal in the foreground © Simon Menges

The new building is geared toward local residents as well as tourists. Unlike the island’s other must-see museums, which host permanent collections and display objects such as the Ishtar Gate and world-famous bust of Nefertiti, the James Simon Gallery will be more fluid, offering a changing program of exhibitions to entice Berliners.

“We were given a shopping list of requirements,” Chipperfield said. “Some were vague, like for example, asking us to ‘be more receptive to orienting mass visitors’ or ‘to have better ticketing facilities’—not the usual precise requirements.”

It is, in a sense, Berlin’s equivalent of the Louvre Pyramid, distributing the five million yearly patrons, almost all of them tourists, to various destinations on Museum Island. “Problems from Paris have been learned,” stressed Chipperfield. (Today, long lines and congestion plagues the entrance to the glass pyramid itself.)

Instead of glass, Chipperfield chose to clad the building in white limestone. Its most striking feature is a colonnade, whose long side follows the contours of the river before falling to grade; a grand public staircase splits the colonnade in two. This procession of columns, while stripped-down in form, takes cues from the Classical architectural language that defines the character of Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In doing so, the Jame Simon Gallery harmonizes with the two other nearby landmarks: the canal-facing Doric facade of the Pergamon Museum and (more notably) the monumentally long Doric colonnade of the Schinkel-designed Altes Museum.

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Main internal staircase © Simon Menges

The gallery is 117,300 square feet—and 80 feet from top to bottom—but you wouldn’t know it from the outside. The extended colonnade diffuses the building’s volumetric presence from the street while several levels are tucked underground. Furthermore, on the canal side, the building’s plinth lines up with the adjacent Pergamon Museum’s base—another contextually sensitive touch. (Also on its canal side, a small stairway descends to the water level, though no visitors will arrive this way—it’s merely a public landing for visitors.) “This was the one side of Museum Island where there was no architecture into the water,” Chipperfield told Metropolis. “It’s a symbolic connection to the water, a gesture.”

Visitors entering from the gallery’s street-facing grand staircase pass through a glazed vestibule and are greeted by a spacious, polished concrete foyer. Now at the level of the plinth, patrons (even those without a ticket) can enter a café and terrace overlooking the canal. “Initially, we thought the primary function was the [temporary] exhibitions,” said Chipperfield at a press briefing. Now, the building promotes itself very much as a public amenity.

Meanwhile, at the end of the long lobby are ticketing facilities, set against a wall of half-centimeter-thick marble which glows with natural daylight. If the restoration of the Neues Museum foregrounded Chipperfield’s attention to detail, then the James Simon Gallery does not let down. At this level, museum-goers can enter the Pergamon too.

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The auditorium © Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects

Downstairs, through more concrete hallways, entrances to the Altes and Neues Musuems can be found along with a shop, cloakroom, lockers, and restrooms. A 300-seat auditorium has been included as well; the venue is located below the entrance stairs and is encased by serrated concrete acoustic walls and a billowing oak-clad ceiling.

One final level down is a 7,000-square-feet temporary exhibition space. At last! Here is the gallery that gives the building its name. (Chipperfield conceded this notion himself: “What to call it was an extremely difficult thing to do,” he said). Opening August 29, the inaugural exhibition, New Life. The Art of Casting Plaster, will showcase work from the Gipsformerei (the Berlin State Museum’s replica workshop) and celebrate the plaster-casting institution’s 200th anniversary.

More exhibitions will follow, and Chipperfield is keen for this dynamism to make the James Simon Gallery distinct from those around it: “When the lights of the other museums go off, these should stay on.”

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