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Martin Luther Museum by Springer Architekten, Eisleben, Germany

Springer Architekten aim to naturally insert two new buildings into a World Heritage Site’s historic ensemble. Photography by Bernd Hiepe

Like so many historical figures, the memory of Martin Luther is preserved in the now ubiquitous heritage trail. Eisleben, a small town to the north-west of Leipzig, bears the particular distinction of being the birthplace of the great proselytising founder of the Reformation. Luther was born here on 10 November 1483 and was baptised next day, the feast of St Martin of Tours, in the local church of St Peter and St Paul (the baptismal font still survives).

Though Luther only lived in Eisleben for a year before his family moved to Mansfeld, the locals were canny enough to become early pioneers of heritage tourism, opening up his house to the public in 1693 as Germany’s first ever memorial museum. Around that time, the original medieval facade was lost in a fire, and replaced by a baroque successor. In 1817 the Prussian king Friederich Wilhelm III approved state funding for the museum and in 1996, the house, its surrounding courtyard and neighbouring 19th-century Luther Armenschule (a school for the poor), were finally designated a World Heritage Site.

Over the centuries, the house/museum has been subject to changing and often contradictory curatorial, architectural and political attitudes. On one hand is the notion of idealising the site with some form of monument; on the other, an ambition to conjure a sense of the original medieval character of Luther’s birthplace. But when Springer Architekten was commissioned to add to the historic ensemble, it found that neither monumentality nor medievalism were the answer. ‘Our work is aimed at preserving the specific aura of the locale through the quite natural insertion of new buildings’, says project architect Thorsten Richter.

The Berlin-based firm has added two new pieces to the existing ensemble. A small museum acts as a spinal element, physically uniting the Luther house and across the road is a separate visitor information centre.

In practical terms, the aim is to improve facilities for Luther pilgrims, museum staff and locals alike, but this is underscored by a strong experiential dimension, in how the new elements relate to history and a sense of place.

Responding to the site as a vital and evolving entity, rather then pickled in aspic, the two new buildings are confidently and elegantly of their time. Though they are formal opposites - the museum is a long, barn-like volume, the visitor centre a kind of chamfered cube - both are united by modest two-storey scale and a thoughtful palette of materials. ‘Crisp’ is perhaps an overused architectural soubriquet, but the buildings are just that; crisp, simple and sober, with walls of oatmeal coloured brick and pre-weathered titanium zinc roofs. Large windows with minimal timber or concrete surrounds are precisely incised deep into the wall plane. It’s an architecture of astutely executed small moves - how to make an opening in a wall, how to judge the cant and heave of a roof, how to mix materials. The texture of the soft, speckly Danish brick acts as a contemporary foil to the rendered and coloured historic facades.

Entry to the site is through the cloister-like courtyard studded with gnarled and ancient trees. The museum contains a new set of exhibition spaces and rationalises circulation between the Luther house and school, formalising a visitor promenade that spans the centuries. Within the house, the set piece space is the Schöner Saal, the largest room on the first floor with a richly decorated ceiling featuring a full-length portrait of Luther. The ground floor contains a medieval kitchen. Arrayed throughout the house are books and artworks dating from Luther’s childhood.

The museum contains a collection of altarpieces, vestments, sculptures and relics. Set against a neutral backdrop of limewashed brickwork and blonde wood floors, the ornate nature of the artefacts is subtly emphasised. Gently rising, cranking and falling along the building’s length, the ribbed roof structure is exposed in the two large exhibition spaces at upper level. The thick brick walls make it possible to largely dispense with mechanical climate control. Instead, cooling air flows through perforated screens set in the windows. The third part of the ensemble, the Luther Armenschule, now appropriately houses the museum’s education functions.

Given the significance of the existing buildings, an understandable instinct might have been to churn out an anodyne piece of deferential pastiche. But such temptation has been firmly resisted. ‘The visitors, who often come from far away, should be able to sense the atmosphere of the place,’ says Richter, ‘but at the same time, the credibility of contemporary architecture should not be sacrificed.’

Architect Springer Architekten, Berlin
Project team Torsten Richter, Priscille Biolley, Wiebke Foitzik, Corinna Noack, Johannes Schumann, Birgit Terechte, Jan Wiese
Structural engineer Jockwer + Partner
Restoration consultant Jens Linke

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