by Flóra Barkóczi
The Neue Nationalgalerie built in 1968 in Berlin is not only the last building designed by the German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but also a synthesis of his oeuvre. Although it is an admirable piece of 20th century architecture, there are numerous discussions regarding the usability of the building as a museum. In this article I would like to demonstrate the base of this paradox between the form and the function and try to offer potential solutions to the problem.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is situated at the Kulturforum, which is the so-called “Museum Island of West Berlin”. At this location we can find several buildings in various modernist architectural styles, the Neue Nationalgalerie can be seen as one of the most important pieces of the complex. The external structures of the building are dominated by the clarity and simplicity of geometrical forms, which express the main ideas of Mies van der Rohe. The building can be divided in two parts: an upper part and a lower part. The upper part of the museum is elevated from the street level and hence makes it functional as an entry point as well. It is often called a „glass pavillon” because of the glass facade dominating the building. The black painted square steel roof plate is supported by eight monumental steel columns, and formed by a frame of steel beams. The roof is bridged by an 18 meter long cantilever, which at the same time gives the building the structural stability and seeming flatness of the roof plate. This upper space serves as a gallery space for temporary exhibitions. The lower part of the building below the glass pavillon is a gallery space for the permanent collection with a floor space four times that of the upper space.
The most important difference between the two parts of the building is that while the upper gallery space is surrounded by glass walls from all directions, the lower space does not have any windows that lets natural light directly in. As we are talking about an art museum, how the lighting is served is a very determining aspect of the building. The lower space is practically a „transparent structure”, bordered by glass walls on all the four sides. It implicates that the daylight is coming in the building during the opening hours. Due to the reflective abilities of the granite floor in the upper space, it is more complicated to inspect the direction of the incoming light. Obviously it is quite impossible to showcase an exhibition in a gallery space full of natural lights. Curators and workers of the Neue Nationalgalerie from time to time, from exhibition to exhibition, are working on the solution of this problem. They often use special panels and folding screens to build up new exhibition spaces, separated the artworks from the facade, secluding them to the centre of the space.
„Form follows function” – originally expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright – is the primary dictum of modernist architecture of the 20th century. It was a radical principle in which the result of design should derive directly from its purpose. It meant the elimination of unnecessary details from the appearance of the buildings, and simplicity and clarity in the visual expression of the structure. The Neue Nationalgalerie is a clear example of the modernist architecture because of the purity of its structural form. However, its whole construction does not fit the determined function of the building – working as a museum.
The reason for Mies van der Rohe designing the Neue Nationalgalerie this way was to create an example of all his ideas, visions and conceptions about modern architecture. He used materials like concrete, glass and steel which also make the building be seen as a synthesis of modernist architecture. During his whole lifetime acting as an architect Mies van der Rohe tried to be as professional as it was possible by reaching the simplicity and purity required by modernism. The plan of the Neue Nationalgalerie has its origins in an earlier design for an office building planned in Cuba in the Caribbean Islands. It was ordered by José M. Bosch, CEO of the Bacardi Company in 1956. The building was not executed due to diverse problems, one of them being the difficulties of maintaining a building with full glass facades in the Caribbean climate. Mies van der Rohe used the plans of this office in Berlin to let his synthetically building come true, but he did not deal with the changed function of the building. The plan for an office could not work as well for a museum building. However Mies van der Rohe realized his ideas of modern architecture, but upon the whole not the dictum of modern architecture. In the case of the Neue Nationalgalerie form does not follow function expansively.
What possibilities are there to both make the upper museum space more usable and keep the building in its form as one of the most significant pieces of modernist architecture? It is also mentionable, that while the whole upper part is used now as an exhibition space, the lower part serves not only the permanent exhibition room but other facilities, like a café, a bookshop, a library and offices. Regarding the problem of the whole Kulturforum as well, namely small amount of visitors around the area, it could be more effective to use the upper space of the Neue Nationalgalerie as a café, bookshop and other functions, that do not require a space without natural lights. Obviously this case the dominating part of the building would lose its original function, but there is no perfect solution.
In spite of all these difficulties the Neue Nationalgalerie is still a significant example of modernist architecture. The building is going through a major three year renovation starting in 2015 by the office of the British architect, David Chipperfield. Although this renovation does not cover the functional rethink of the museum building, the possibilities to frame the building closer to the dictum “form follows function” should be kept in mind in the future.