“Now Be Glad, Berlin!”

26.11.2019“Now Be Glad, Berlin!”

It wasn't just the peperoncini promised by Jacques Herzog to spice up the facade that turned up the heat at the public information event for the Museum of the 20th Century on November 18, 2019. The participants discussed all of the important questions relating to the new building on the Kulturforum.

By Gesine Bahr

A man on a stage
Jacques Herzog explaining the design of the Museum of the 20th Century © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

A certain feeling of tension was detectable in the Kammermusiksaal (chamber music hall) on the Kulturforum, despite the fact that the storms of indignation had already passed from the feature sections of the papers, that the budget adjustment meeting of the parliamentary committee responsible – a major hurdle – had been cleared four days earlier, and that it was not a sweltering summer night, but a cool autumn evening. After all, there was a lot at stake: art in general, architecture in particular and, of course, costs of 364 million euros (equated by some with “half a billion”).

And so the four hundred critics and fans – or potential fans – of the project waited in the foyer of the little sister of the Philharmonie (and cousin of the Staatsbibliothek  and the Musikinstrumenten) for insights into the shape of things to come – and doubtless also in eager anticipation of controversy over the questions that editorials and comments sections had bombarded the SPK with during the previous few weeks: Why does Berlin need a museum of the twentieth century? Why is it going to be so expensive? Is the museum worth all this money? How is the museum supposed to heal the Kulturforum? Won't the museum detract from its neighbors – all of which are architectural icons?

A man on a stage
SPK President Parzinger welcomes the audience © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn
The foyer of the Kammermusiksaal, designed by Edgar Wisniewski © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

The meeting kicked off with the SPK president, Hermann Parzinger, who spoke energetically and enthusiastically in favor of the “barn”, as some call it, emphasizing that its construction is essential for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) and that the important thing now is “simply to keep going along the path instead of spending further decades” discussing the location and concepts of emptiness or density: “I am amazed to read that an empty space is needed in the middle [of the Kulturforum] – look, there has been empty space for long enough, and it has been argued over for decades,” he pointed out. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, it is important to continue the conversation with critics: “Criticism is important, debate is important: that way, the decisions are thought through better. And when I think what might have been if we had had such an intense discussion about some other places in Berlin, then Berlin would certainly look different.”

The president of the SPK then issued an invitation to attend the ground-breaking ceremony on December 3rd at 11.30 a.m., quoting what a former Mayor of Berlin, Walter Momper, said after the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago: “Now be glad, Berlin!”

And that is just what Berlin should do, because the Museum of the 20th Century is for people, agreed Christina Haak, the deputy director general of the SMB: “We aren't building the museum for ourselves, but for our visitors. Actually, I would rather say ‘our users,’ because we want this building to be used by people.” After all, the new building is much more “than a new place for keeping expensive art,” it's rather a “venue for interdisciplinary debate” that is open to everything and everyone, as well as offering flexible-use spaces for artistic and social experimentation.

Besides all these aspects, considered essential for a museum in the 21st century, the new building will, of course, finally provide the space to do justice to outstanding works of art by a range of artists as diverse as Gerhard Richter, Lotte Laserstein, Anselm Kiefer, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Pipilotti Rist. In a quick but impressive jog through the collection, Joachim Jäger, the director of the Nationalgalerie, highlighted some of the treasures currently slumbering in storage for lack of gallery space, and convincingly refuted the rather cheeky claim that ideas for the planned museum are in short supply.

There followed a clever talk by Jacques Herzog, which elegantly cut a large swath in the phalanx of careless criticism with a cavalcade of reasons why “this will be a great building. Otherwise I would have been content if the parliament had said ‘we won't do it.’ We are extremely glad and proud and we are going to put something here that people will love,” said the talkative half of the architectural duo. For him and Pierre de Meuron, design is never about leaving their own signature, but rather about “responding to the place” and getting the most out of it. The Kulturforum is a place steeped in history, marked by the wars, divisions, and fresh starts that shaped the course of the twentieth century and which are reflected in the art of the twentieth century – and such a historical background, he argued, demands proximity and friction, which in this case means the museum and the neighboring institutions.

The Kulturforum from above (with the Museum of the 20th Century)
The Kulturforum from above (with the Museum of the 20th Century) © Geoportal Berlin / Digitale farbige Orthophotos 2015 (DOP20RGB) / Herzog & de Meuron

Herzog spoke very convincingly of density as a concept that will finally breathe life into the Kulturforum, of the open brick facade as an additional space that will promote openness and dialogue, of the two intersecting boulevards that are designed to channel the gallery's inner life to the outside and, of course, of the simple form of the building, which some have unjustifiably denigrated as a “Lidl supermarket.” Such a form, he explained, will allow the building to lead its own life beside the “extremely abstract building by Mies and the playful architecture of Scharoun. As an independent building, an independent form, neither cowering nor asserting itself in a pretentious gesture.”

People discussing in front of a crowd
The panel: Reinhard Hübsch, Hannes Langbein, Wulf Herzogenrath, Swantje Karich, Jacques Herzog, and Udo Kittelmann (from left to right) © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

After that, the panel discussion began, but although many opponents of the building had been invited, none of them had agreed to take part, so the podium was occupied exclusively by people who were in favor of the project: Udo Kittelmann, director of the Nationalgalerie (“It's going to be fantastic!”), Hannes Langbein from the St. Matthäus Foundation (loved the building for being all fronts and no back, and for enlivening the Kulturforum), cultural veteran Wulf Herzogenrath, who told of how the Neue Nationalgalerie had been disparaged as a “filling station” at first, culture journalist Swantje Karich, who likewise would have appreciated arguing with an opponent of the project, and of course Jacques Herzog.

So it was left to the members of the audience to raise critical questions – a task that they accepted gratefully and in large numbers: Is the architectural design really radical enough for the museum's contents? Mightn't Scharoun's master plan from the 1960s be a better way forward?

Wouldn't a different location have been better because it would have been cheaper? What would happen to the lines of sight between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, and more generally, wouldn't the newcomer push the Neue Nationalgalerie and even the Gemäldegalerie into the background? Couldn't they find a less boring alternative to the name “Museum of the 20th Century”?

In any case, there was general agreement that we should be pleased “that we can have these tough debates, that we have this large number of voices”, as Swantje Karich noted. Heiner Pietzsch, who generously donated the collection that, thanks to the new building, can soon be displayed in all its glory, also rose to speak of the benefits of discussion: “When a building like this is being built, if it isn't criticized, from whatever side, nothing sensible could come of it. Criticism is the mother of that which is good.”

Karich summed it up very aptly when she offered everyone who is moved – in whatever way – by the museum of the twentieth century, a modification of a saying that is popular as a wall tattoo: “We talk about things that are behind us. The building has been approved; of course, we could demonstrate now, occupy this space, do whatever – well then, let's do it. But better, let's talk about how we can use this museum in ways that really make it work.”

People at a bar
Afterward, the discussion continued at the bar © SPK / photothek.net / Felix Zahn

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