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Museum Brandhorst by Sauerbruch Hutton, Munich, Germany

Sauerbruch Hutton’s addition to Munich’s cultural quarter is a of well constructed series of interior gallery spaces wrapped in a fascinating colour skin. Photography by Rainer Viertlböck

‘[Cy Twombly] says that landscape is what he likes looking at most and that this is why he has lately been spending four months of each year in Virginia. Architecture comes next, and then painting. I asked him where he placed sculpture. He said it was part of architecture.’ David Sylvester, ‘The World is Light’, 1997

Art critic David Sylvester wrote this in an essay about American painter Cy Twombly. In the Museum Brandhorst - the Munich gallery designed by Berlin-based architect Sauerbruch Hutton, which opened in May - an entire floor is dedicated to Twombly’s large canvases. One vast room is full of pictures of roses, giant swirls of colour applied to the canvas with, perhaps, a screwed-up rag or a very wide brush.

These staggering paintings of Twombly’s productive late period ask profound questions of Sauerbruch Hutton’s work at Brandhorst. The Berlin architect has colour as its trademark, often creating multi-coloured skins for buildings, most famously at the Federal Environ¬mental Agency building in Essen, Germany, (completed in 2005) and the red blinds of the GSW Head¬quarters tower in Berlin (1999). At the Brandhorst, a new museum created to house a brilliant collection of mainly late-20th century art donated to the city of Munich, the practice has been careful to associate its use of colour with the history of painting and architecture.

Sauerbruch Hutton couches its work in the aesthetics and motivations of abstract painting, creating a multicoloured ceramic and steel facade that is phenomenologically beautiful but also very controlled.

Made of thousands of ceramic rods held in front of a coloured and faceted steel rainscreen, it presents a fascinating colour map, like some scientific experiment, or the pixels of a TV screen, observed close-up.

The gallery is on a tight site in Munich’s Kunstareal, the Bavarian city’s cultural quarter. This area combines several of the most important galleries in Europe, most significantly the Alte Pinakothek (Old Art Gallery), a magnificent work of neo-classicism by Leo von Klenze, inaugurated in 1836. More recently, the Kunstareal has added buildings in the 1970s (the Neue Pinakothek) and the 1990s (Pinakothek der Moderne) to create an imposing district set in large, formal gardens.

The Brandhorst’s form is pretty simple. The decision to place the entrance on the corner of Theresienstrasse and Tuerkenstrasse seems the correct one urbanistically, despite resulting in a mute relationship with the well-used green space between the back of the Brandhorst and the Pinakothek der Moderne. The building is at its highest here, and the plan splays to further mark the entrance as a civic event on the street. This grand gesture nicely interfaces between the mixed-use streetscape of Theresienstrasse and the enormous campus of cultural buildings.

Through anonymous sliding glass doors you enter an antechamber that contains ticket desk, café and stairs to a basement cloakroom. This is very much a reception area, but it is high, airy and pleasant. Passing through into the gallery you arrive in a grand stairwell. The staircase is hung from the ceiling, so there are fissures running the full height of the building from the basement to the ceiling of the top floor. This spectacular staircase doesn’t strike you as such immediately, thanks to the laconic material treatment. White walls, solid Danish oak parquet floors and balustrades, and leather handrails predominate.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the building is its approach to natural light. A simple shift in section on the basement level allows the floor to be illuminated from above. The middle floor is ingeniously lit from the side through high-level windows washing light along a curved soffit. On the top floor, a glass roof allows light in, filtered through two layers of fabric. In all cases, the almost 100,000 lux of light outside (in summer) is filtered down to an artwork-friendly level of about 300 lux, with an amazingly uniform distribution. The quality of light in the side-lit galleries on the ground floor is particularly impressive. When I was there, most of the galleries supplemented this natural light with artificial, but practice partner Matthias Sauerbruch told me he prefers it when the lights are off. I agree.

The three display floors have distinct characters. The 460m² basement gallery, for example, is barn-like, with 7m-high ceilings, and lit from skylights shielded by a metal grid. There are six smaller galleries (65m² each) in the basement, too, without any natural light. These are intended to show works on paper, but are used for general sculpture and painting right now.

The ground floor is a series of intimate galleries (between 55m² and 100m², with hanging heights of 5.5m). On the upper level are the fabulous, large spaces for Twombly’s work - two large galleries, one for the Roses, the other for the Lepanto cycle, 12 large canvasses describing a naval battle. The Lepanto room has one straight wall, with the other a faceted, irregular arc designed for the slightly varying dimensions of the paintings. This panorama is just wonderful. The architects fought to keep it in the scheme and their success has created one of the most special custom-designed spaces for a particular artwork in recent years.

The galleries are arranged room to room and the oblique enfilades are beautifully judged. The one on the top floor, from the right corridor-like breakout space in the east corner of the plan looking towards the large Roses gallery, is thrilling, interposed with one of Twombly’s sculptures.

But what of the exterior? In all Sauerbruch Hutton’s architecture, the skin is considered almost completely separately from the spaces inside, and that lends the building, despite its exuberant colour scheme, its propriety and reserve.

The facade is made of 36,000 ceramic rods (4cm x 4cm x 110cm) in 23 different colours, fixed vertically in front of a two-coloured perforated metal skin. The perforations mitigate sound from the busy roads. From a distance, the skin looks homogenous, shaded variously according to the three main volumes of the building. Up close, individual rods are visible.

For Sauerbruch Hutton, colour in architecture is more related to painting than to sculpture. In a short text, half apologia, half manifesto, Sauerbruch describes the Brandhorst as a ‘polychromatic’ building. Justifying use of colour in architecture with reference to neo- classical frescos, it continues into modernism through Le Corbusier and a brief, revisionist reading of Adolf Loos (who hated adornments, but not decoration per se).

What is not mentioned is as interesting as what is. He refers to von Klenze’s Alte Pinakothek and to a now-demolished neo-classical building by von Gaertner and van Voit using the names of the architects, but does not mention the authors of the Neue Pinakothek (by Alexander von Branca, completed in 1981) or the forbidding Pinakothek der Moderne (by Stephan Braunfels). Sauerbruch seems keen to situate himself in a longer modern tradition, rather than the strange post-modernism of German architecture of the late 70s and 80s. His perception that facade-making is like abstract painting backs this up.

But you can’t help wishing they would add to their poise and elegance an understanding of sculpture within the genus architecture, as Twombly does.

The elegance of plan and section of the Brandhorst is tangible, but the feeling outside is of a building assembled of volumes, dressed tastefully rather than achieving a powerful unity. Sauerbruch Hutton’s work is overwhelmingly professional and very fine indeed. If they loosened up a little, they would be all the more powerful.

Architect Sauerbruch Hutton
Principals in charge Matthias Sauerbruch, Louisa Hutton, Juan Lucas Young
Project architect David Wegener
Structural engineer Ingenieurbüro Fink, Berlin
Landscaping Adelheid Schönborn Gräfin, Munich
Preventive conservation Doerner Institut, Munich

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