A Visitor’s Experience of the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin

by Emily Goad

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a multilayered space of exhibition, where the architecture is constantly in tension with the visitor.  Built in 1968 by Mies Van der Rohe, the gallery was one of the first cultural institutions built in the Kuturforum, West Berlin’s answer to East Berlin’s Museum Island. The building has barely changed since this time, and is now under-going it’s first extensive renovation. Though desperately in need of repair, much of the gallery’s form remains as it was in 1968. The gallery’s main tension in contemporary times is its failure to adapt to the changing landscape and the expectations of modern visitors.

The Neue Nationalgalerie’s entrance is open and airy however it’s location and failure to engage with the surrounding environment leaves it isolated and uninviting. The gallery’s entrance on the eastern side of the building is separated from the busy road of Potsdamerstraße by the open pavement and low steps leading up to the terrace. This unimpeded stretch of concrete, while allowing easy access for visitors from the main road, does nothing to block the noise and pollution from the street. The main entrance to the gallery through the upper pavilion provides little refuge form the road, and the walls of glass seem to be wasted on such a view. There is one alternate approach to the gallery, from the Kulturforum via the north side stairs, which lie behind the imposing walls of submerged gallery space, which rise to their peak at the base of staircase. Also accompanying this entrance is the bare expanse of the side road Sigismundstraße, and the rear of the St. Matthäus Church, which furthers the feeling of isolation and abandon. The gallery’s sublime simplicity of form is lost in its environment, as the approaching visitor is overwhelmed by bare concrete and heavy traffic.

Once visitors climb to the terrace surrounding the upper glass Pavilion of the gallery, the expanse of both elements is evident, as is the weight of the roof, which appears supported by nothing but glass and a few struts. Although the terrace includes a few garden beds and a number of sculptures, bare concrete slabs dominate the space. The iron roof of the pavilion weighs down on the viewer and the building, which in a less isolated setting might produce an awe-inspiring experience. The current warped and worn condition of the windows combines with the isolated setting to create a brittle and dreary structure. If a visitor does explore the terrace to the far western edge they are rewarded with the hidden view of the sculpture garden below. This secluded rectangular space surrounded by high walls is filled with a harmonious combination of trees, sculptures and sculpted plants. Its isolation lends it an intimacy completely absent from the upper pavilion, but which positively contrasts with this geometric simplicity. The view of the sculpture garden is separated form the terrace by a wide wall, which further isolates the two structures.

Once the visitor enters the Neue Nationalgalerie they must descend one of the two central staircases in order to reach the lobby and buy tickets. The first aspect of this interior depends on the current exhibition, however the view through the far windows is always inhibited by the interior columns and the semi-permanent walls of the coat and bag check rooms, which lie just beyond the descending stairs.  The transparent expansive space seems misused and in fact ignored, as visitors are ushered below the floor. The lobby itself is large and open, but dim compared to the upper pavilion. The space below is structured around this central lobby, with a ticket box on one side and the museum shop and café entrance on the other. The gallery rooms surround this central space, and exhibition entrances can alter according the need. The western wall of this submerged space, which is separated from the lobby by multiple rooms, consists of a floor to ceiling window looking out to the sculpture garden. The garden cannot be accessed without prior appointment, and though provides an abundance of natural light into the otherwise dim gallery, firmly separates the viewer form the space and indeed its artworks.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is an example of innovative modernist design whose exterior isolates and its interior confines. The form of the building does not fit its function, and the visitor is led through incongruous spaces, which clash together leaving the viewer confused and disorientated. Neither spaces, above or below, are utilised for their strengths, and the clean lines of the modernist form are lost to the confused layout of the interior.

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