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From the archive: Museum of Modern Literature in Germany by David Chipperfield

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Thirty years after Stirling brought Po-Mo to Stuttgart, David Chipperfield reinstates Classical order

Originally published in the AR in October 2007

When discussing his work, David Chipperfield ensures that the prosaic and poetic are given equal airtime. In consideration of the Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach am Neckar, when describing challenges of designing a destination museum in which to exhibit the unexhibitable, adjacent to the symmetrical dominance of a revivalist pile, on a sloping site, in post-war Germany, his narrative moves naturally between multivalent readings. From architecture’s ancient truths (light, scale, and proportion), though the Classical language (via Schinkel, Speer and Van der Laan), to implications of achieving SO lux, no single issue predominates. Instead, work is presented as if all influences and ideas merged consequentially, with an inevitability that should appeal to those from all architectural faiths and none.

 ‘Chipperfield chose to address the ongoing dilemma in German Architecture of how to achieve a suitable expression of monumentality’

Throughout his career, Chipperfield has been a relative stranger amid his profession, both in London, where he employs 80, and Berlin, where the 85 strong office that ran this project (under the direction of Alexander Schwarz) is one of the city’s largest. Enjoying autonomy by not participating in conventional power games of the career architect, he has turned the disadvantage of professional isolation to gain, describing how working as an outsider in unknown territories has empowered him to be far more provocative than normal when considering contentious regional debates, such as in the case of this project, what a civic building in post-war Germany should actually look like. Three decades on, therefore, the story of this building in many ways re-enacts that of Stirling’s seminal Stuttgart Staatsgalerie (AR December 1984); the product of an exiled British architect, rocking the boat of convention in foreign waters.

Museum marbach germanyby david chipperfield jpg

Museum marbach germanyby david chipperfield jpg

While worlds apart in expression (although equally referential in precedent), it is interesting that both architects loaded nonprogrammatic parts of their buildings with what Chipperfield calls ‘universal architectural qualities’. With terraces, ramps and drum at the Staatsgalerie being its most enduring components, galleries themselves remain incidental to many people’s experience of the building. Likewise, at Marbach, while not underrating the extraordinary interiors, it is terraces, colonnades and light chambers that most profoundly resonate with Chipperfield’s chosen mode of expression; a mode that unlike Stirling’s playful and exaggerated adaptation of motifs, refines its references to the absolute minimum, in a quieter more modest language that Chipperfield calls minimal classicism.

‘The museum’s acropolis-like silhouette appears to pre-date the original 1903 National Schiller Museum’

Based on a strong conviction that architecture can and should speak to a broad public (like Stirling), Chipperfield chose to address the ongoing dilemma in German Architecture of how to achieve a suitable expression of monumentality. In a head-on confrontation with the unwritten rule that post-war German buildings should never have columns, in opposition to what Chipperfield politely describes as the free-form expressionism of the South German Behnisch School (more dismissively described by Schwarz as democratic inclusive nonsense), this building is undeniably Germanic.

Museum marbach germany david chipperfield jpg

Museum marbach germany david chipperfield jpg

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Museum marbach germany david chipperfield 2 jpg

Unsurprisingly people have called it fascist, however, as Chipperfield said to reassure one concerned competition juror, ‘These aren’t fascist columns…they’re mullions’, mischievously unifying poetic mischievously unifying poetic and prosaic ambitions in a justification that shows how slender elements have been deployed to modulate light. Clearly, however, Chipperfield cannot ignore such strong formal associations, and explains its overtly Classic expression in relation to representation and meaning, promoting what he considers to be the architect’s responsibility to present a shared narrative that is readable by all without being explicitly told. So, while at its most elementary level this building represents an abstracted reduction of Nazi classicism, reading between the columns, it is also a serious critique of Modernism, demonstrating that modern buildings do not need to sever historic continuity or weave obscure and unrelated narratives. Revealing Rossi and Tafuri’s influence on his career, Chipperfield happily describes this building as part historicist and part regionalist, tracing as it does, the fine line between memory and innovation.

‘Chipperfield has developed a new syntax that is both ancient and modern’

Despite its modern clipped aesthetic, its acropolis-like silhouette appears to pre-date the original 1903 National Schiller Museum, presenting an archaic image that emerged from early investigations into how temple forms could be adapted to sit in the ground. With the composition of plinth and portico proving difficult to resolve, however, the next logical (inevitable and consequentially merged) idea was to unify its expression by ordering the entire envelope with an array of columns, in an entirely new, yet strangely familiar (Schinkel cum Speer cum van der Laan cum Johnson) language. Therefore, Chipperfield has developed a new syntax that is both ancient and modern. Ancient in its massive modulated order, and modern in its unbalanced asymmetrical state; an asymmetry that becomes increasingly evident internally where Chipperfield’s trademark virtuosity is revealed through the intricate arrangement of a suite of interconnected rooms that belie the building’s uniform exterior.

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Musuem marbach germany david chipperfield jpg

Approaching the building from one of three possible routes, the museum is entered through an upper level lantern that is, in part, reminiscent of Mies’ entrance at the Berlin Art Gallery. Without the forced symmetry, however, this space unifies rather than seperates, connecting upper and lower realms through a carefully choregraphed sequence of axial turns and views that prepare visitors for the dimly lit lower ground floor galleries, subtly reducing light levels as they descend the central stair. Once on the lowest level, a suite of exhibition spaces is arranged around three anterooms that give ultimate flexibility. Rigidly contained in plan, space is permitted.