The Kunstmuseum extension in Basel projects solidity and strength even as it defers to its august progenitor
Comprising 50 paintings and a large portfolio of drawings and prints, the Amerbach-Kabinett was an art collection assembled by the Basel-based lawyer and academic, Basilius Amerbach, in the latter half of the 16th century. After his death, his grandson threatened the collection’s removal to Amsterdam, prompting the city of Basel and its university to make a counter-offer. In securing its retention, they established the world’s first municipal art museum, the Kunstmuseum Basel, which has been augmented with historic and contemporary work ever since.
Since 1936, the museum has been housed in a building closely modelled on a northern Italian palazzo by local architect Rudolf Christ and his collaborator from Stuttgart, Paul Bonatz. However, in recent decades, the pressure on space presented by ongoing acquisitions and a newfound commitment to staging temporary exhibitions led the museum to explore the possibility of expansion. Having secured a large plot on the far side of Dufourstrasse – the road which extends down the side of Christ and Bonatz’s building – it staged an anonymous competition for a new wing in 2009. Among the 23 invited practices were five past Pritzker Prize winners, but the commission was ultimately awarded to a young local firm: the office of Emanuel Christ – Rudolf Christ’s great-nephew – and his partner, Christoph Gantenbein.
The task of framing a sympathetic relationship between the new wing and the existing museum was significantly complicated by their physical detachment. The project awarded second place in the competition by Diener & Diener, proposed the introduction of a two-storey bridge link, which would enable the existing circuit of galleries to expand directly into the new wing. However, the external implications of this move were less happy, obscuring much of the museum’s side elevation and introducing a gateway condition where, from an urban perspective, none was demanded.
The other shortlisted projects, including the winner, avoided these issues by linking to the original building by tunnel. This strategy enabled new and old to maintain independent architectural characters and many competitors exploited that licence to highly demonstrative effect. However, an inescapable consequence of such a strategy was that the pre-eminence of the older building was diminished – a problem exacerbated by the extension’s location on a major road intersection, where it enjoys significantly greater urban prominence than its parent structure. What distinguished Christ & Gantenbein’s design was that it embraced its status as an annexe. While sharing a family likeness with the older building, it unequivocally presents itself as the subservient partner in the ensemble.
The two structures are of an essentially common section, housing ancillary functions on the lowest of three floors, side-lit galleries in the middle and top-lit galleries on top.
In both cases this tripartite organisation translates into facades characterised by large first-floor windows sandwiched between expanses of minimally fenestrated masonry. Yet, where Christ and Bonatz’s building is of rectilinear form and separated from Dufourstrasse by a public square, its neighbour is altogether less classically composed. In part, this is a product of the non-orthogonal arrangement of its site boundaries, but the building’s geometry has been further complicated through a series of artful inflections. These have the effect of giving it more presence when seen tangentially down Dufourstrasse and St Alban-Vorstadt, the other street that the building addresses. The most pronounced indentation is reserved for the corner where these roads meet. The gesture gives the building an emphatic orientation towards the intersection and provides the setting for a very large doorway, protected out of hours by a galvanised steel gate. Any temptation to provide greater transparency, articulation or even a bench on this frontage has been resisted in the interests of preserving a near castle-like level of fortification.
But if the building might fairly be considered less than welcoming, that sense of reserve is well gauged to ensure that its neighbour continues to be understood as the museum’s ‘face’. While visitors can enter Christ & Gantenbein’s building directly from the street, they will need to have pre-booked or bought tickets from booths that have been newly installed under the old building’s portico. The majority of visitors continue to enter through the old building’s foyer, accessing the new wing via the tunnel.
A sense of the neighbours’ commonality and relative status is also communicated by their subtly varied wall treatments. Where the old building’s elevations are faced in a finely jointed light grey limestone, interwoven with narrow bands of a darker tone, those of the extension operate within a similar chromatic range but employ a brick that graduates from dark to light up the building’s height. Laid without expansion joints and revealing their considerable depth at window openings, these walls project a monolithic, almost archaic, quality. The specified brick is only 40mm high, establishing a horizontal emphasis that is further exaggerated by the recession of alternate courses – a treatment that the architects liken to the raw brickwork of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, still awaiting its marble frontage five centuries after Michelangelo proposed his design. Towards the top, there is also a more prominent horizontal feature: a band of darker brick that invites a reading as a proto-classical frieze. In a spectacular coup de théâtre, this feature can be animated by LEDs laid in the deep-recessed joints between brick courses. Most commonly deployed to advertise the exhibition programme in 3-metre high, glowing, scrolling text, the device dramatically subverts our reading of a building that in so many other respects presents an image of solidity and stasis.
The new work has been undertaken in parallel with a comprehensive refurbishment of the original museum, enabling a particularly seamless transition. The continuity of wall and floor surfaces is significant in this respect, but so too is the fact that, at 10 metres in width, the ‘tunnel’ is more of a subterranean lobby. It connects to a second, even larger, foyer – a space capable of accommodating as many as 1,000 people for a party – from where the visitor begins their journey up the building by way of a monumental, centrally located stair.
‘They argue that a degree of friction between art and museum is fundamental’
The exhibition spaces distributed to either side are predicated on a belief in the continued relevance of the well-proportioned and tectonically articulated room as the most resonant and adaptable context for presenting art. Clustered in suites of four, the galleries are uniformly rectilinear and, while somewhat larger than those in the earlier building, retain a scale that invites association with the living quarters of an Italian palazzo. Openings are sited so as to lead visitors on a journey that meanders and occasionally reveals long, layered vistas that cut across the galleries’ dominant geometry. The route extends around each floor as a circuit, with the top-lit stairwell providing a regular point of orientation. This space is sufficiently generously scaled to serve as an exhibition area in its own right but it is distinguished from the galleries both by its non-orthogonal geometry and by its material palette. This features a veined grey Carrara marble for the stair and a roughly scraped plaster, in a lighter grey for the walls. Both treatments relate closely to materials employed in the circulation spaces of the older building. However, the use of galvanised steel for handrails, security gates and the reception desk extends this aesthetic into more industrial territory without deviating from a chicly restricted colour range.
While more conventionally materialised with painted plasterboard walls, the galleries are by no means generic white boxes. Their ceilings comprise a close array of precast concrete downstand beams, which elegantly incorporate artificial lighting and a natural ventilation system. Meanwhile the floor has been laid in strips of large-format oak parquet, grouted with wood cement. This modified industrial system establishes a visually insistent grid that unquestionably represents a challenge for the display of floor-based sculpture. Christ and Gantenbein argue that a degree of friction between a work of art and the environment in which it is displayed is fundamental to the qualities of any good museum. ‘We believe that works of art possess a greater intensity when shown in a committed architectural space: when an original meets an original.’ Such arguments have all too frequently been employed by architects keen to interpret the programme of a museum as a licence for formal experimentation. But the risks this project takes are calculated ones and invariably undertaken in the interests of the artworks that it houses and the institution of which it forms a part. While a model of propriety, it is a building that asserts a rich and singular presence too.
Kunstmuseum Basel extension
Architect: Christ & Gantenbein
Structural engineer: ZPF Ingenieure
Photographs: Anders Sune Berg, Stefano Graziani