Essen celebrates museum opening with Chipperfield designs | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 28.01.2010
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Essen celebrates museum opening with Chipperfield designs

Museum Folkwang in the German city of Essen is finally opening its doors again to the public after a complete redesigning of its buildings. The museum is world-renowned for its collections.

Newly constructed Museum Folkwang in Essen - stairs up to the front entrance

Museum Folkwang's make-over integrates the old and the new

As the western Germany city of Essen celebrates its status as a European Capital of Culture in 2010, its Museum Folkwang also has something to boast about: its entirely new collection spaces. While a portion of the original complex was torn down, architect David Chipperfield - who also drafted Berlin's Neues Museum - included the 1950s-1960s building in his new design. Museum Folkwang is one of Germany's most distinguished art venues; its collection includes works by Caspar David Friedrich, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne.

Deutsche Welle: How does an existing collection affect how you design a building?

Chipperfield stands smiling in the museum

Chipperfield says he gets attached to many of his projects

David Chipperfield: I think if there is a good existing collection, it gives you a lot of confidence to build a museum around it. Like building a restaurant around a good chef. I think the conditions for this project were ideal with regard to the director's - Dr. Fischer's - enthusiasm to get daylight "correct" in this museum. That was a great advantage in the conception of the project. I think the other motivation, I suppose, was the anxiety about the last building - which was destroyed after 25 years, which is, in a way, an unusual, brave decision, but I think signified some fundamental issues.

So, there's a return to the 60s building to look for certain qualities - like transparency, openness and light. [Editors' note: That portion of the museum was designed in the 1950s and completed in 1960.] When they built the 60s building, the technology was not so good, so it was more difficult to control the light. Sidelight is difficult, but here, it's used in the circulation areas. They have the atmosphere of being galleries, but they are not primary display spaces. When we go into the collection, then we have top light, which is much easier to control in relation to the paintings.

Clarity seems to be a very classic, a very minimalist feature here. Does it have a connection to German architecture, to Bauhaus?

Daylight flows down from the ceiling in one of the exhibition spaces

Light from top is the easiest to control, Chipperfield says

We had to consider the 1960s building. I mean, we were all very fond of it. So we are extending that building, but extending it to three or four times the space. There was a danger that the bigger building would humiliate and leave the old building as a forgotten piece. But instead, we really wanted to embrace and borrow its qualities and spirit. Its spirit was that of a building of the 1960s, created by very good, professional, local architects who did a very nice project that was clearly inspired by Bauhaus and Mies von der Rohe, and that was something we thought we should be inspired by, but not copy.

You aim to open up the museum area. Can you say something about your "village" idea?

There is a sort of double desire in designing museums. One is to make it easy to find your way there and find your way around, but at the same time, it should be possible to lose yourself - that it becomes a world in itself. I think here - and you will always see this in museums - that there are exhibition spaces and then there are circulation spaces. My feeling in the past few years is that the circulation spaces and lobbies and cafe areas and shops have become too important. We have a client in America who said that she's fed up with it taking hours before you see the first painting.

A very bright artwork spans a museum with daylight streaming in from the other side

The artworks should take centerstage, the architect says

And so here, we really wanted to create a museum in which, when you first open the door, you feel you are in a museum, and not in a big lobby, or hotel or something - and that you could see art right away. The circulation spaces are around these courtyards and they give you the opportunity to really see into the collections. So, from the front door, you can actually begin to see art. You see the temporary exhibition galleries, the permanent collection galleries, you can see the old building, you can see the photographic collection, the shop, the cafe. So, everything is visible, like a little village.

You've said that a building has to been connected to the community, to the city. What did you mean by that?

A museum has a status within a community, and Folkwang has always had that status. It's clearly in the minds of everybody, and has established a very serious presence. But physically, I don't think the former building reflected the importance of the collection well enough as an institution. What I think is appreciated about this building is that it appears quite natural. The architecture is not meant to be the first thing; architecture is a tool. It's just meant to be something that holds you. Then, of course you can notice that it's been well-considered. I don't want people to come here and say "oh, wow" about the architecture. What they're coming here for is the paintings. I want them to walk straight to the works, and then afterwards, say, "oh, the architecture was nice, too." I think architecture is important and not important. I think you should also be able to ignore it.

Chipperfield standing in the museum, musing in front of a window

Chipperfield muses in the Essen museum

You are one of the most celebrated museum architects of our time. What do you think this need for a museum is about - what does it stand for in society?

I think part of it is bad. I think we have shrunk the parts of our cities in which we can invest our intellectual and cultural ambitions. In former times, there was a much more civic intervention into the design of cities. In the modern world, it has become much more difficult - for political reasons, for economic reasons - to create those conditions. So, I suppose a museum has become a sort of refuge for our civic and our cultural ambitions. We've retreated a little bit, but at least we haven't given those up, so I think a museum has established an even more important role as a sanctuary. In the United States, you can see this. In a community like St. Louis, they really participate in the museum because it's a really intense occasion where people's cultural expectations - and in a way, social connections - are played out. So I think a museum has become a receptacle of all of these issues.

On the other hand, and in a good way, I think art has simply become more important, and I think we have probably understood that we have to counter-balance all the superficial tendencies. As the world gets faster, the need to slow down becomes more important and I think the museum is one of the only places left, apart from reading a novel, where you occupy yourself not with something external, but something internal. Most of our leisure time is occupied - with going to a football match, or going skiing, things that fill time. There are not many moments where you occupy your own self.

Interview: Ulrike Sommer (als)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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