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Berlin's iconic Neue Nationalgalerie is reborn

August 23, 2021

After six long years of painstaking renovations, Mies van der Rohe's architectural masterpiece and shrine to modern art is finally reopening to the public.

The Neue Nationalgalerie at night
The upper showroom, with its highly geometric form and vast glass windows, has become a landmarkImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/J. Henkelmann

The newly restored Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin will once again be open to the public starting Sunday. Three exhibitions will be viewable. 

"Alexander Calder. Minimal/Maximal" features works by the American sculptor known for his abstract kinetic "mobiles" that hang from wires. Calder has a long connection to the museum: His outdoor sculpture "Têtes et Queue" (1965) is synonymous with the Neue Nationalgalerie, having been installed for its inauguration. It will once again be located on the museum's terrace.

"Rosa Barba. In a Perpetual Now" is dedicated to the cinematic and cultural work of the contemporary Berlin-based artist.

"The Art of Society: 1900-1945: The Nationalgalerie Collection" presents a selection of its permanent works, which span Germany's imperial era to the end of the Nazi rule. Having originally been dedicated to acquiring artworks deemed "degenerate" by the Nazi regime, the collection today boasts contemporary masterpieces by artists from across Europe and North America, such as Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol. Provenance work to uncover the origins of pieces acquired during the Nazi era remains ongoing. 

An instant classic of modernist architecture

Yet for many visitors, the building itself may be as much of a draw as what is displayed on its premises. Designed by the esteemed architect and former Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the building has spent the past six years closed for renovation. 

"The building is a key exhibit," museum director Joachim Jäger said.

An icon returns: Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie

Van der Rohe himself was a modern art collector whose Chicago apartment featured works by Paul Klee and Picasso. He enthusiastically accepted a commission to design a contemporary art gallery in Berlin in the 1960s.

Constructed between 1965 and 1968, the Neue Nationalgalerie, with its highly geometric form and vast glass windows around its signature upper showroom, became an instant classic of high modernist architecture.

Following the major refurbishment that ended in April, it now begins a second life. Little appears to have changed due to the painstaking effort by David Chipperfield Architects to first gut and update the heritage-listed building, and to put it back together almost exactly as they found it.

A utopian building

David Chipperfield, who also remodeled the Neues Museum and designed the James Simon Gallery on Berlin's Museum Island, spoke via video after the conclusion of the renovation of how Mies van der Rohe was the ideal candidate to create an architectural landmark in postwar Berlin.

Interview with Architect David Chipperfield

"He was an architect capable of a utopian building in a city which needed some utopian thoughts, at a time when it was looking again for a future," said Chipperfield of Mies' last major commission — he died in 1969, a year after the Neue Nationalgalerie was completed.

"It is one of his most important works," he added, saying Mies imbued the structure with "extreme harmony" through "the coordination of structure and space, construction and material, purpose and form."

"It's wonderful to be part of this story of this incredible city," he told DW of his own contribution to the building, along with his practice's work on various Berlin institutions. But Chipperfield insisted that his renovation is not a work of architecture. "There's only space for one architect in this building," he said.  

April ceremony for the end of renovation

A small ceremony took place in April when the building was returned to the Berlin State Museums and the neighboring Kulturforum that manage it. At the event, Germany's minister of state for culture, Monika Grütters, emphasized the building's architectural significance.

"With its large, light-flooded hall and the exhibition rooms in the basement, Mies van der Rohe's architectural icon now shines in new splendor," she said. She added that when it reopens, the gallery will "once again become a magnet for the public."

Mies van der Rohe, black and white portrait
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 – 1969) was an icon of of mid-century design and architectureImage: /akg-images/picture-alliance

"Mies van der Rohe created a universal beacon of classical modernism toward the end of his life's work," said Anne Katrin Bohle, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community. "His architecture creates spatial freedom in its purest form [and] paved the way for an entire generation of architects."

Indeed, the Berlin masterwork is also reminiscent of the German-born architect's other "International Style" buildings such as Farnsworth House in Illinois, or the pioneering German Pavilion created for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.

Updated but all original

During the ceremony, Chipperfield was also praised for remaining faithful to this vision by removing, restoring and reinstalling some 35,000 building objects including granite slabs, light fixtures, railings, glass and wooden panels. "Thank you very much David, you did an awesome job," said Bohle.

The Neue Nationalgalerie was also modernized to meet contemporary standards in terms of air conditioning, fire protection and security. The entire underfloor heating system, and the ventilation system, was renewed.

Scaffolding in the Neue Nationalgalerie in 2017
Refurbishment of the museum, seen here in 2017, took twice as long as the original construction of the buildingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Chipperfield reiterated that the renewal was "surgical in nature ... in order to protect his [the architect's] vision. We hope to have released the patient to all appearances untouched — just in much better condition."

"Our responsibility," he told DW, "was just to repair it and bring it back to what the architect had intended it to be."

This article has been updated to reflect the reopening of the museum.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.