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Thursday, September 23, 2021

A 6-year refit winds back the clock at a Berlin landmark

The overhaul of Neue Nationalgalerie was guided by the principle of changing as little as possible while modernizing outdated mechanical systems like air conditioning, heating, security and fire safety. It is reopening with four exhibitions.

By: New York Times | Berlin |
Updated: August 24, 2021 11:45:12 am
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin museumPeople view the exhibition 'The Art of Society: 1900-1945' at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, the first day the museum opened to visitors after a $165 million renovation. The Neue Nationalgalerie now looks like it did when it first opened in 1968, which is exactly the point of the renovation. (Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times)

By Christopher F. Schuetze

The renovations took six years and cost $165 million, but what impressed Julia Büttelmann when she visited the Neue Nationalgalerie on Sunday was that nothing seemed to have changed.

“It just reminds me so much of West Berlin,” said Büttelmann, 60, of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s temple of modern art, which stood just a few hundred yards from the wall dividing the city when she first visited as a teenager in the 1970s. “It’s like a time capsule,” she added.

Büttelmann was one of the first 1,500 Berliners who had reserved tickets two weeks in advance and donned medical-grade masks to rediscover this city landmark, which had become a little worn before the renovation: Its carpets were threadbare, its upholstery was frayed and the huge windows of its main hall fogged up in cold weather.

“Carrying out such a task, in a building that leaves no place to hide, is daunting,” David Chipperfield, a British architect whose studio oversaw the renovations, said in a statement. “But we hope to have returned this beloved patient seemingly untouched, except for it running more smoothly.”

The overhaul of the building was guided by the principle of changing as little as possible while modernizing outdated mechanical systems like air conditioning, heating, security and fire safety.

Yet Joachim Jäger, the Neue Nationalgalerie’s director, said he sees the reopening as a new beginning.

“It’s a kind of reset, a kind of review of the architecture and of the collection,” Jäger said. The six-year closure had allowed the museum to rethink fundamental questions about its mission and its programming, he said: “What is the Neue Nationalgalerie? What does it stand for? What is there to see? And also, where do we want to go?”

It is reopening with four exhibitions. The centerpiece show, running through Feb. 13, 2022, is “Alexander Calder: Minimal/Maximal,” an exhibition of works by the American sculptor, whose giant interactive steel sculptures seem designed to show off the museum’s light-flooded upper hall.

Another exhibition, “Rosa Baba: In a Perpetual Now,” presenting works by the Berlin-based artist, is showing in a darkened exhibition space downstairs, where works from the museum’s permanent collection, largely by famous European men active in the early 20th century, are displayed.

On Sunday, a small group of women gathered outside the museum to protest the dearth of art by female artists on display.

Jäger said that although the restoration had wound the clock back to the 1960s, its programming would not be stuck in that era.

“It’s very important to us to show the limitations of the collection,” he said, adding that he welcomed debate that could shape the museum’s direction.

Michael Eissenhauer, director of Berlin State Museums, the umbrella body that oversees the Neue Nationalgalerie, said that for his generation, “the building stood, at the time of its opening in 1968, in a way, for an unprecedented spirit of tolerance and openness.”

Mies, the German American architect who was the last director of the Bauhaus art school before he left Germany in 1937, made a personal appearance when the massive steel roof was hoisted onto the building’s girders in 1967. The project would be his only major postwar construction in his country of birth.

For the latest renovation, 35,000 pieces of the building, including 14,000 granite slabs and 3,500 light fixtures, were removed.

A Chinese glass-maker reproduced the main hall’s 200 windows, each weighing 1.2 tons. Each was custom built to accommodate for a slight warp of the 53-year-old girders.

Jäger said his team struggled with the decision to stick with single-pane windows, as in Mies’ original design, because more modern windows would have been better equipped to control humidity and heat inside, especially in the summer and winter.

“It was a really tough decision,” he said. “But it was the correct one, because it was the only way to conserve Mies’ vision.”

In one concession to modernity, the museum decided to renew the antiquated lighting system with 2,400 LED lights that are slightly brighter, and much more energy efficient.

Other, more anachronistic details have been preserved. After long discussions, the original 1960s carpets were re-created and installed, though their retro, industrial style wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

“I’m unsure about the fact that one has to hang on to the old to such a degree,” said Büttelmann, the visitor, as she pointed to the carpet. “I probably would have made some changes.”

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