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Augustiner Museum by Christoph Mäckler Architekten, Freiburg, Germany

Christoph Mäckler’s renovation of the Augustiner Museum is a neutral stage set for art that still resonates through time and space

Dedicated to the religious art of the Middle Ages, Freiburg’s Augustinermuseum is one of the most culturally and artistically significant museums in the Upper Rhine region. Founded in 1923, the museum is housed in a former Augustinian monastery in the heart of Freiburg. Yet despite its historical appeal, the building had not kept pace with the needs of a diverse and burgeoning collection. In 2002, Frankfurt-based Christoph Mäckler Architekten was commissioned to devise a refurbishment strategy, culminating in the reopening of the subtly rebranded Neues Augustinermuseum last year. Mäckler’s approach rationalises and dramatises the internal spaces with the aim of dignifying and celebrating an assortment of treasures.

Constructed in the 13th century, Freiburg’s Augustinian monastery is a typically piecemeal accretion of buildings arranged around a church and cloister. Deconsecrated in the 19th century, the church functioned as a surprisingly serviceable municipal theatre for over 100 years, before being reconverted to meet the more serious demands of a museum. When Mäckler came to the project, he discovered that the internal layout and display of artefacts had remained essentially unchanged since the museum’s founding, giving it a nostalgic charm. But this could not assuage the growing deficiencies of space, circulation, visitor service, security and climate control.

By inserting a ‘second shell’ to recreate the effect of the original interior, Mäckler transforms the nave of the church into the museum’s theatrical set piece. Tautly hewn in creamy stone, the armature of bays and columns performs several tasks. It defines new galleries along each long edge for the display of artworks, while stabilising the nave’s existing external walls and supporting its timber roof structure, so that the attic storey now acts as an exhibition space. The nave itself is devoted to a series of weathered red sandstone sculptures dating from the 14th century that once adorned the tower of Freiburg’s Minster. The imposing figures of 10 Old Testament prophets are arrayed in two rows on the ground floor and a set of gargoyles picturing the Seven Deadly Sins thrust demonically out of the walls above. These deliciously sinister grotesques can be inspected at close quarters from the nave’s new upper level.

In place of what would have been the original rood screen, a partition wall separates the nave from the choir. At its far east end, the choir is dominated by a ceiling-high Baroque organ that came from Gengenbach monastery on the edge of the Black Forest. The ornamental power of this artefact is countered by an equally tall display cabinet set at the opposite end of the choir. The cabinet’s yellow niches form an evocative backdrop for the lustrous gilt and creamy flesh tones of Baroque religious sculpture. Planes of flat, bold colour are a recurring theme, from the ‘heavenly’ blue of the nave’s side galleries, designed to set off delicate altarpieces, to the red walls of the attic storey.

Experiential drama is heightened by a carefully choreographed route around the interior. A new entrance opens up the building’s west end and vertical circulation is slotted in between the nave and an extension created for the display of stained glass. An Escher-like staircase orchestrates moments of compression as visitors enter the intimate, stained glass galleries, and moments of exhilaration as they glimpse the soaring volume of the nave as they rise up through the building. Other aspects of Mäckler’s renovation include a new exhibition space in the vaulted cellars underneath the church and the creation of a bookshop and café in the former cloisters. It’s all handled with graceful Teutonic precision that sees the architecture, quite properly, as a neutral stage set for art that still resonates with a compelling intensity through time and space.

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