Rebuilding the Ruin

David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum Berlin

Instructor: Martha Justo Caldeira

Until recently, visitors to Berlin’s Museum Island would have been confronted with a peculiar sight. Sandwiched between Schinkel’s Altes Museum and the Pergamon Museum stood a crumbling ruin, its exposed brickwork blanketed in moss and flowering shrubs that formed a verdant backdrop to the numerous trees growing in its once grand courtyard. Gaping holes torn out of the building by Allied bombings during the Second World War revealed glimpses into a world entirely removed from the bustle of the adjacent Bodestrabe and the surrounding city (fig.1). Behind the charred hulk of the Neues Museum stood the Alte Nationalgalerie; framing the ruins of the Neues Musuem, the ossified optimism of its Gründerzeit 1 neoclassicism served as a poignant reminder of Berlin’s fluctuating fortunes.

Figure 1.  Aerial view of the ruins of the Neues Museum

Figure 1. Aerial view of the ruins of the Neues Museum

In 1997, David Chipperfield Architects - a British architectural practice - was selected by the German government to undertake the task of returning the ruin to its original function as a public museum to house a portion of the archaeological collections accumulated by Prussia during the nineteenth century. The commission was characteristic of Germany’s attempts to repair the damage wreaked on its city fabric by the Second World War, and anticipated a faithful historical reproduction of the original building. In 2009, twelve years after the initial commission, the museum opened to a tentative public. Chipperfield’s decision to emphatically reject any possibility of historical reconstruction had drawn widespread consternation from critics who argued that an interest in preserving the building’s existing fabric represented an attempt to memorialize or glorify the war. Chipperfield’s subsequent negotiation of the myriad ramifications of intervening in such a charged site has led to praise for the completed project from critics and public alike. However, at the heart of Chipperfield’s ability to negotiate the treacherous political and emotional terrain of the project lies a willingness to question the very nature of architectural restoration and to fully engage the image and meaning of the architectural ruin. As such, the theoretical framework within which Chipperfield operates is rooted in the empiricism and aesthetic theory of the British Enlightenment and the emergence of the picturesque as an aesthetic category at the end of the eighteenth century. The architecture of John Soane also provides a valuable point of reference in this regard; much of his work is infused with a picturesque sensibility and an awareness of the potence of the architectural ruin as an aesthetic device. Chipperfield references Soane as a precedent when discussing his own approach at the Neues Museum, making particular mention of Joseph Gandy’s renderings for Soane’s Bank of England, which depict the project under construction in an evocative, ruinous state (fig.2) 2.

Figure 2.  Gandy’s perspective of Soane’s scheme for the Bank of England

Figure 2. Gandy’s perspective of Soane’s scheme for the Bank of England

In his reference to Gandy and Soane, it is clear that Chipperfield was keen to imbue the restored Neues Museum with the materiality and sensibility of the ruinous state in which it spent much of its life. However, the building’s history prior to its destruction also played an important part in determining the strategy for its reconstruction, and a brief overview of the museum’s development is necessary as a preface to an evaluation of Chipperfield’s approach. Originally designed by August Stüler 3, the museum was commissioned by Frederick William IV as part of his broader plans for the development of a new Museum Island for Berlin (fig.3). Located in the heart of city, the Museum Island complex was conceived of as the city’s intellectual and spiritual center (fig.4). Schinkel’s monumental classical colonnade at the Altes Museum was to be its frontispiece, emphatically supporting Berlin’s aspirations to be the new Athens.

Figure 3.  Frederick William IV’s sketch of the Museum Island as he imagined it

Figure 3. Frederick William IV’s sketch of the Museum Island as he imagined it

Stüler conceived of the Neues Museum as a tripartite structure, comprised of a Doric colonnade at ground level, a main storey in the Ionic order, and a Corinthian attic. The tripartite division of the facade corresponded to the division of works inside the museum, which were divided into symbolic, classical and romantic periods 4. The architecture of the museum was thus conceived of as a support for its didactic historiography in a manner typical of the Enlightenment institution.

Figure 4.  Site plan showing the museum’s location (in red) on Museum Island

Figure 4. Site plan showing the museum’s location (in red) on Museum Island

In Stüler’s scheme, the Doric colonnade led visitors to the museum’s grand staircase and up to the classical galleries of the main storey. Crowning the galleries and the staircase was a replica of the caryatid porch from the Athenian Erechtheion, to be flanked by a colonnade of giant Corinthian pilasters (fig.5). These were eventually left out in favour of a monumental mural by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, which depicted the entire history of human progress through the lens of nineteenth century imperial Prussia - beginning with the fall of the tower of Babel and culminating with Luther presenting his bible to a mass of followers. Kaulbach’s mural was supplemented by numerous decorative landscapes and historical scenes throughout the museum’s galleries that drew on an eclectic range of sources, depicting subjects as diverse as Egyptian hieroglyphs, celestial charts and natural scenes that were designed to reinforce the notion of a grand historical narrative with Germany at its centre.

Figure 5.  Watercolor depicting the original condition of the grand hall

Figure 5. Watercolor depicting the original condition of the grand hall

The 1920s brought drastic changes to the fabric of the museum as changing conceptions of historiography led to a series of broad and violent interventions. Holes were drilled into murals to suspend dropped ceilings, and wall frescoes were panelled over to present a neutral background for the art on display. Architectural interventions corresponded with equivalent changes in the organization of the museum’s collections. The most substantial of these was the relocation of the museum’s extensive cast collection to Berlin University which necessitated a more general internal reorganization, leading to the glazing over the museum’s internal courtyard and the addition of a new floor at ground level for the display of the museum’s Egyptian collection (fig.6). These interventions served to damage many of the murals and distort Stüler’s original organization of the building, but the damage caused paled in comparison to the destruction brought about by the war and the Allied bombing of Berlin. The entire northern wing of the museum was destroyed and large parts of the building were reduced to ash and rubble. Images taken after the bombing reveal the extent of the damage; the stairwell at the museum’s centre was entirely destroyed, and the few traces of Kaulbach’s mural that remained were little more than flecks of color on the expanse of charred brick and stone exposed in the central hall (fig.7). Water damage in the years following the bombing continued to erode the building fabric, and attempts to shore up the walls of the central hall and main galleries during the Soviet occupation of Berlin did little to arrest the rate of decay. In its ruined state, the fragments of murals and decorative ornaments served as enduring reminders of the vicissitudes of time, approaching the aesthetic ideal of the picturesque that was developed in Britain in the eighteenth century. Describing his first encounter with the museum, Chipperfield referred to the ‘dramaturgy’ 5 of the space, and of the importance of retaining this sense without glorifying the process of destruction.

Figure 6.  Stüler’s Egyptian hall prior to its destruction

Figure 6. Stüler’s Egyptian hall prior to its destruction

Figure 7.  View of the staircase after the bombing

Figure 7. View of the staircase after the bombing

The primary issue facing the architectural team at the outset of the project was determining the precise nature of the building’s reconstruction. Public opinion called for an accurate historical restoration that would return the museum to Stüler’s original design. Chipperfield accepted the commission aware that ‘when [he] inherited the project, [he] inherited the expectation that what should be done to the Neues Museum was a faithful copy of the original building.’ The consequences of this strategy are problematic; practical difficulties are compounded by the moral implications of a reconstructive approach. Reconstruction suggests a singular, objective ideal that should be aimed for, an ideal that was challenged by the British empiricists. In Hume’s dissertation, ‘Of the Standard of Taste,’ beauty is acknowledged as a characteristic that is dependant on a subject’s perception and taste rather than an attainable, objective ideal. Hume’s assertion that ‘the sentiments of men often differ with regard to beauty and deformity of all kinds, even while their general discourse is the same,’ 6 reveals the difficulties inherent in the Neues Museum project, in which the ultimate goal of an appropriate reconstruction was complicated by the various strategies proposed by each party involved in the design process. Hume goes on to examine the question by considering science and art relative to beauty:

‘Nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretend decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain for ever.’ 7

Hume suggests that science’s claim to objectivity and truth is a falsehood, exposed as such by successive generations; today’s understanding of what might constitute a historically accurate reconstruction of a building will be unavoidably called into question in the future. However, even if the project of an accurate reconstruction were to be carried out, the validity of such an approach must also be questioned. The ruined state of the building is a visual reminder of the distance between a contemporary world view and that of nineteenth century Germany. The technological project of modern architecture, the horrors of the war, and the subsequent rejection of a totalizing historical narrative in favour of a Post-Modern understanding of time as fragmented and disjointed have led to a shift in the museum’s role; the Enlightenment’s emphasis on universality and a single narrative arc has given way to specialization and a relative autonomy between the various parts of the museum’s collection 8. To ignore this fact would be to forget that the bricks lying scattered on the ground were blown away by the war, or to ignore the plants weaving their way up Stüler’s Ionic columns. Hume explores this notion of distance further in ‘Of the Standard of Taste,’

‘We are more pleased....with pictures and characters that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs. It is not without some effort that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals...where the ideas of morality and decency alter from one age to another...this must be allowed to disfigure the poem’ 9

Like an audience struggling to associate with the theatrical representation of ‘kings and heroes,’ Hume’s writing suggests that Stüler’s architecture may be appreciated as a historical artifact, but that it is not capable of resonating with a public so far removed from the context in which it was produced. Chipperfield presents this argument through the metaphor of a broken amphora pieced together through the addition of unpainted, neutral support material. This archaeological process maintains the fragments of the artefact and presents them in a manner that allows for an understanding and appreciation of their significance, but does not strive for mimesis of a perceived original state,

‘Every piece of material that existed should be kept, should be stabilized and should be cleaned...nothing should be removed from the site, everything would be kept and we would fill archaeology or in painting you would never consider that you paint tails on horses or wheels on chariots, so why would you do that in architecture?’

By adopting this strategy, Chipperfield chose to retain the sensibility of the ruin, accepting the Neues Museum’s destruction and treating it as a departure point. In doing so, he cites the architecture of John Soane, whose work he references for its ‘muscular and physical condition’ 10. In Soane’s work can be found a similar appreciation of the ruin, both for its aesthetic qualities and its potential to generate an emotive response in the subject. In the essay ‘Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation,’ Robin Middleton posits Soane’s architecture at the intersection of a classical and modern understanding of space. Instead of the classical reliance on fixed points of reference, Soane’s architecture relies on a disjunctive and fragmented conception of space; it is ‘centered on individual experience’ rather than ‘stable representation,’ 11 and builds on Hume’s exploration of beauty as a subjective quality. Chipperfield’s insistence on retaining the existing fragments of the building implies the rejection of the notion of a stable architectural space while his desire to avoid synthesizing the diverse spaces of the museum’s galleries into a compositional whole echoes Soane’s idiosyncratic approach to the internal organization of his architecture. Middleton argues that in his approach, Soane was not rejecting the classical tradition, but subverting it 12. In the Neues Museum, the material that formed Stüler’s didactic scenography also becomes the means of its own subversion. Separated from the objects they were designed to complement, the fragments of surviving murals that were restored in the renovation have become potent symbols of our continually evolving understanding of space and time (fig.8).

Figure 8.  A newly restored mural in one of the museum’s galleries

Figure 8. A newly restored mural in one of the museum’s galleries

The extent of Chipperfield’s intervention varies throughout the building and the syncopated rhythm of the restored galleries is punctuated at certain key points by entirely new elements; the new central staircase and the ten-pier hypostyle hall of the Egyptian courtyard are the most dramatic of these new constructions. The original Egyptian courtyard was entirely destroyed during the war, and the lack of existing material led Chipperfield to intervene with an architecture that is emphatically ‘new.’ This ‘newness’ is highlighted by the introduction of concrete as a construction material, a departure from the brick and stone that dominates much of the rest of the museum. The concrete mix is comprised of white cement, local sand and marble aggregate to create a ‘strikingly luminous white appearance’ 13 that is complemented by the daylight pouring into the hall through the large skylight above.

These elements are the most explicitly contemporary in the museum, yet the lack of ornamentation and finish ensures the spaces retain the raw quality of the rest of the building. This sensibility informs the display of the objects and the experience of viewing them; typically, Egyptian collections rely on spotlights against a dark background to highlight the artifacts on display, but here Chipperfield chooses to invoke the openness of the ruin. Stepping out from the adjacent galleries into the bright light of the hall, the contrast in both light and material is striking. The slender concrete columns rise to the roof where beams supporting the glass ceiling extend to the courtyard walls. Chipperfield’s careful choreography of a visitor’s arrival and experience of the space recalls Soane’s use of corridors as important scenographic elements; in Soane’s proposal for the New Law Courts, corridors are used to ‘emphasise surprising turns and lighting effects,’ 14 and serve both as connective devices and picturesque compositional elements.

Building on Edmund Burke’s definitions of beauty and the sublime, Uvedale Price defined the picturesque as an aesthetic category drawing on elements of both, and located at varying distances between the two. In his ‘Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful,’ Price establishes the picturesque as fundamentally different to the beautiful. Where Burke’s definition of beauty relies on smoothness, gradual variation and uniformness of surface, the picturesque is dependent on the ‘two opposite qualities of roughness, and of sudden variation, joined to that of irregularity’ 15. These qualities are apparent in the new Egyptian courtyard, which emphatically resists a reading of smoothness or continuity with the existing fabric of the Neues Museum. In its minimalism and difference, the trabeated structure of Chipperfield’s intervention can be read as a scaffolding for Stüler’s building (fig.9). Price defines scaffolding as lending buildings a ‘more picturesque appearance, than the building itself when the scaffolding is taken away’ 16 in a passage that echoes Chipperfield’s assertion that ‘architecture as ruin seems to convey a physicality and a materiality that so many completed buildings don’t have’ 17. However, Price goes on to suggest that as an ornament to landscaping, scaffolding (or fencing in the context of the landscape design that Price is concerned with) should be composed of,

‘Mossy, rough-hewn park pales of unequal heights...and not...a neat post and rail...the most unpicturesque [and] uniform, of all boundaries’ 18.

Figure 9.  The renovated Egyptian hall

Figure 9. The renovated Egyptian hall

Despite the unequivocal difference of the Egyptian Hall relative to the existing fabric, its resolution and the absolute precision of its detailing leaves little room for the energy and vitality that is inherent in the juxtaposition and fragmentation of the museum’s galleries, and which Price describes as a valuable feature of the picturesque (fig.10).

Figure 10.  The diverse sequence of galleries

Figure 10. The diverse sequence of galleries

In the grand hall, cast-in-place concrete reappears in the new stair that Chipperfield introduced to the space and that once again acts as the museum’s focal point. Chipperfield employs a stripped-down minimalist language in the staircase’s construction, and as in the hypostyle hall, where the concrete beams penetrate the brick walls of the courtyard seamlessly, Chipperfield makes no attempt to elaborate on moments of adjacency between old and new. Here, the stair’s austerity serves as a mnemonic device, emphasizing the absence of the Caryatid porch that crowned the stair prior to the bombing. Whereas in the galleries the neutral restorative fabric gives new meaning and symbolic value to the process of assemblage, here, it is used emphasize the tragedy of destruction in a gesture that begins to favour solemnity and loss over the vitality and optimism suggested by the restorative work in the galleries (fig.11). The potential for both interpretations is inherent in the act of restoration, and is a theme Middleton recognizes in Soane’s work,

‘I would like to suggest that Soane was stirred by a rebellion against established modes of thinking and making…using the fragments of a world that had become commonplace and devoid of meaning to create new conjunctions and juxtapositions that would articulate their latent meanings once again and provide a new metaphorical and poetic wholeness for the fulfillment of life’ 19.

Figure 11.  A gallery before and after the renovation

Figure 11. A gallery before and after the renovation

The Neues Museum’s grand hall is at once the most sophisticated and the most troubling element of Chipperfield’s restoration (fig.12). Here, his architecture serves to create the conjunctions and juxtapositions that Middleton refers to, whilst expressing the vicissitudes of time through the emphatic contrast of material and detail between old and new. In the grand hall, Chipperfield is able to employ architecture as a means of bridging the gap between the past and present by allowing a contemporary understanding of time to influence and distort the presentation of the museum’s history in a manner that allows for it to resonate with a contemporary audience. However, the use of an ascetic minimalist aesthetic for all new construction in the museum willingly ignores the potential richness of the material juxtapositions that Middleton praises Soane for mining in his work. Though Chipperfield’s presentation of the galleries as elements within a picturesque scenographic sequence is productive and draws on the full potential of the picturesque scenography described by Price and employed by Soane, the main stair highlights the potentially facile readings that Chipperfield’s new constructions may engender. In their smoothness and uniformity, they risk becoming merely beautiful, losing sight of the potential agency that his architecture is infused with in its organization of the fragments of Stüler’s ruin.

Figure 12.  The renovated staircase and grand hall

Figure 12. The renovated staircase and grand hall

Chipperfield’s restoration is an expansive and sensitive project that reveals architecture’s potential to engage with issues far broader than the specifics of site or program. The renovated Neues Museum is remarkable in its recognition of the potency of the architectural ruin. Like Soane, Chipperfield displays an ability to charge the architectural fragment with meaning without resorting to monumentalization, pastiche, or imitation. In a city still scarred by the tragedies of war, Chipperfield’s reconstruction of the Neues Museum is a valuable example of architecture’s ability to preserve and productively provoke, and speaks to the restorative potential of the architectural act.


1 Gründerzeit refers to a period of extraordinary economic growth in Austria and Germany prior to the stock market crash of 1873.

2 David Chipperfield: Recent Works. Lecture given at Yale School of Architecture 11/03/2011. 

3 Friedrich August Stüler was a preferred student of Schinkel, and was also responsible for the design of the Alte Nationalgalerie in the Museum Island complex, which was completed posthumously. 

4 Joseph Rykwert. “Museum as Palimpsest,” Neues Museum Berlin, ed. David Chipperfield, Julian Harrap, and Candida Höfer. (Köln: W. König, 2009), 27.

5 David Chipperfield: Recent Works. 

6 David Hume “Of the Standard of Taste,” Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays. (Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965), 230.

7 Ibid., 235.

8 Karsten Schubert. “Contra-Amnesia: David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum Berlin,” Neues Museum Berlin, ed. David Chipperfield, Julian Harrap, and Candida Höfer. (Köln: W. König, 2009), 76.

9 David Hume. Of the Standard of Taste, 234

10 David Chipperfield: Recent Works.

11 Robin Middleton. “Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation,” John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light, ed. Margaret Richardson and Mary Anne Stevens. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1999), 26. 

12 Robin Middleton. Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation, 29.

13 Kenneth Frampton. “Museum as Palimpsest,” Neues Museum Berlin, ed. David Chipperfield, Julian Harrap, and Candida Höfer. (Köln: W. König, 2009), 103.

14 Robin Middleton. Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation, 30.

15 Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and, on the use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape (London: Printed for J. Robson, 1794). Full text online: 

16 Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque.

17 David Chipperfield: Recent Works. 

18 Uvedale Price, An Essay on the Picturesque.

19 Robin Middleton. Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation, 35.


Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, edited and introduction by J.T. Boulton. London: Printed for J.Robson, 1794.

Chipperfield, DavidDavid Chipperfield, 2006-2010 : Conciliacion De Contrarios. El Croquis ; 150. Eds. Fernando Mairquez Cecilia and Richard C. Levene. Madrid: El Croquis, 2010.

Chipperfield, David, Julian Harrap, and Candida Höfer. Neues Museum Berlin. Köln: W. König, 2009.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste,” Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays. Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.

Middleton, Robin. “Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation,” John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light, ed. Margaret Richardson and Mary Anne Stevens. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1999. p.p. 26-37.

Price, Uvedale. An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and, on the use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape. London: Printed for J. Robson, 1794. Full text online:

Vidler, Anthony. “Notes on the Sublime: From Neoclassicism to Postmodernism,” in Canon - The Princeton Journal. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988. p.p 165-91