Set in Ravensburgʼs atmospheric medieval core, the salvaged brick fabric of the townʼs new art museum is equally antique, but its architecture has a contemporary sensitivity and sobriety
Ravensburg’s new art museum has its origins in the ambition of local collector Gudrun Selinka to place her and her late-husband’s collection of Expressionist works on long-term public loan. With no art museum in her home city, she was initially considering loaning it to the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
On learning this, Ravensburg’s mayor was prompted to do a bit of fancy footwork, getting the support of a local contractor Reisch to buy a site, stump up the £6m to build an art museum, then lease it back to the city. Won in competition by Stuttgart-based Lederer + Ragnarsdóttir + Oei (LRO), the new museum now houses both the Selinka Collection and touring shows of international modern and contemporary art.
This conjunction of local benefactor both funding and filling a new art gallery indicates the intensity of civic pride still thriving in many German towns, as well as the level of local prosperity. Ravensburg is in core Mittelstand country: the small and medium-sized companies that power the German economy. It was not machine parts, however, but board games and jigsaw puzzles that made Ravensburg famous, a twee ‘toytown’ image symbiotically confirmed by its relatively untouched medieval Innenstadt.
Yet despite the character of its 500-year-old core, the visual texture of Ravensburg, like so many German towns, is suffocated in thick layers of external insulation and painted plaster, padding and blanding out the half-timbered facades, their structure indicated only by first floor overhangs. So the pragmatic und praktisch wins over the chocolate box. Any urban textural richness is provided by the horizontal plane, an undulating carpet of cobbles that weaves together the network of streets and Platz, all nestling at the base of a hill capped by a turreted Schloss.
‘If the small, elongated bricks look old, they should: they were salvaged to order from a demolished 14th-century cloister near the Belgian border’
On a tight turn at the top of one of these streets, a more exaggerated overhang of brickwork holds the corner, cantilevered over a large picture window, marking the strong but subtle presence of the new Kunstmuseum. Given the profusion of painted plaster elsewhere in the city, at first glance this looks strongly uncontextual. Yet though it sticks out, it feels right, the blankness of the rough brick echoing the unplastered rubble walls of churches and announcing itself as a public building that stands apart, but not in a conspicuously contemporary way.
If its small, elongated bricks look old, they should: they were salvaged to order from a demolished 14th-century cloister near the Belgian border. Set in irregular courses with roughly applied grey mortar joints, these ancient, handmade bricks have a softness of contour that chimes with the surrounding structures, many made from bricks of a similar vintage, albeit buried under thick layers of plaster. This simple haptic sensibility grounds the new building firmly within the historic townscape. Arno Lederer of LRO explains the idea of familiarity, as opposed to mimicry, in slightly gnomic terms: ‘The reason is you read it, you know it, it is normal.’ He admits a liking for old bricks for aesthetic and environmental reasons, pointing to the embedded energy saved through reuse.
Previously occupied by an accumulation of small factory buildings, the tight site has only two street facades. The longer one facing the Schloss displays a rough symmetry, the cantilever at the left of the main body of the building echoed in the perceived void of the entrance strip to the right, both set back from a central element with a grid of small windows marking vertical circulation. This symmetry explores the idea of a formal ‘public building’ entrance but then deliberately undercuts it, as it is not experienced when entering off the street and is only apparent on climbing the small footpaths that perambulate up to the Schloss. Even then it is partially obscured by trees.
Added to this, the gravitas of the whole is thrown into question by the building’s distinctive but rather ungainly profile at parapet level, a series of large arched forms starting and ending in mid-flight, like an exaggerated mock-Gothic crenellation. These mark the ends of a row of cross-canted vaults that form the roof: the vault being another signifier for Lederer of a civic role: ‘There are three possibilities of closing the house to the heavens: the modern way with a flat roof, an inclined roof and the vault. We used the third way as it marks this out as a public building.’
Entry is through a small courtyard peeling off the pavement, guarded by a copper gate. This is a tight threshold space shielded but not claustrophobically cut off from the street by a storey-high wall inset with thick perspex fins. Here the three key materials of the building’s palette are concentrated. The brick is set off against a plinth of light grey concrete, which acts as a generous bench wrapping halfway around the space, while brightly burnished copper forms the frame and doors of the glazed entrance screen.
The copper is not recycled but as Lederer points out ‘lasts five or six centuries’. Commonly used in the town for drain pipes and guttering, here it is also similarly employed but as a distinctive, heavy vertical open channel cutting vertically down the building. ‘We get into conversation with a building through the details,’ as Lederer puts it. For him it is as much a conversation with modern architectural history as context. The rain channels riff off Carlo Scarpa, there’s evidently Lewerentz in the brick detailing, and the pronounced concrete water spouts at roof level quote Le Corbusier. ‘We don’t believe there are any inventions in architecture, you have a palette of options to work with,’ says Lederer.
‘There are three ways of closing the house to the heavens: with a flat roof, an inclined roof and the vault. We used the third as it marks this out as a public building’
Inside, a carpet of gridded copper laps up to the foot of a concrete reception desk, fronting a deep black niche behind: another Scarpa reference. These highly articulated elements contrast with the rest of the main ground floor space: a long rectangle divided simply by a screen wall into a lobby area, with two hefty planks forming a table, ringed with assorted plywood chairs for reading, resting and waiting, together with an art-space for less environmentally sensitive work, and an education room, separated by a glazed screen wall. The latter’s sliced-off shape reflects the line of the street behind, and is flooded with light by the single large picture window seen in the approach up from the town. This high visibility for art education and activity underlines a key aspect of the programming devised by museum director, Nicole Fritz, making the building − as she quotes from Jeremy Rifkin − ‘a play space for emotional training’.
The ground floor introduces the basic footprint of the building, an elongated rectangular central body, serviced on either side by two flanking elements with vertical circulation, ‘like the ears on the side of a box’, as Lederer puts it. Here four concrete boxes are stacked vertically on top of each other, with basement plant and lavatories, and above, two floors of galleries. The gallery floorplates form the purest rectangles: space for art is maximised by extending into the overhang above the street.
As robust spaces with chunky service detailing in their grills and uplighters, the galleries work well as environments to show the equally robust Expressionist work of the Selinka Collection, which encompasses Gabriele Münter paintings, Erich Heckel woodcuts and the paint-fest canvases of the Cobra group. Highlights from the collection will usually be shown on the first floor, a completely internalised space, but a thoughtful accent is the glimpsed view out, afforded by the landing window placed at the head of the stairs, opposite the gallery entrance doors.
Though it has an identical floorplate, the upper gallery is a much more dramatic space, its ceiling soffit formed by the brick vaults of the roof, each funnelled and handed to either side. Here the grey mortar is even rougher in application, with gobbets looking like they might occasionally detach and splatter to the floor. Entering it is rather like entering the upper room of a Venetian Scuola, where the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the dominating heaviness of the ceiling. At times, the wave-like layering of cross-canted steel beams and hull-like funnels of brick induces a slight dizziness. And while the present graphic faux-folk-vernacular exhibition of Gert and Uwe Tobias only suffers marginally from this dominant horizon, quieter shows may have difficulty competing with the space.
Structurally, the museum’s compact shape, internalised main spaces, highly insulated walls with thermal bridging reduced to a minimum − all clothed in a reused skin − are matched for thermal efficiency by the servicing strategy. Heating and cooling is supplied by a gas absorption heat pump, with a geothermal probe field serving as a heat source, maintaining the concrete slabs at a constant 22°C. This has resulted in the building receiving the first ever Passivhaus designation for a museum. All this has been achieved through a series of quiet, understated moves rather than any flashy green contortions. Over time, anticipated lower operating costs will add to the positive PR glow for the city. Fitting with ease into Ravensburg’s antique street-scape and comfortable in its own (if second-hand) skin, this is a building that is both sensible and sensuous.