New james simon gallery: the frame is finished

After almost 10 years, the construction of the James Simon Gallery is complete. It is a successful bow to the Museum Island’s past.

The new gallery on Berlin’s Museum Island will open to the public in mid-2019 Photo: dpa

After more than two decades of planning, quite a few construction delays and cost increases, it is now officially done: with the ceremonial handover of the keys to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation yesterday (Thursday) in the presence of Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) and Minister of State for Culture Monika Grutters (CDU), a new building will be added to Berlin’s Museum Island.

The James Simon Gallery – named after the Jewish patron to whom the National Museums owe, among other things, Nefertiti. In the future, the new building will serve as the entrance and distribution building for the so-called Archaeological Promenade, which connects all of the island’s museums underground.

Architect David Chipperfield has not only constructed a "central service building" for the James Simon Gallery with a checkroom, store, cafe, exhibition hall and an auditorium, but has also formally exaggerated the original idea of the Museum Island from the 19th century as a place of worship for art and education.

On the outside, the building looks like a classical temple translated into modernity. The gleaming white facades, high plinth, and slender pillars convey something of grandeur on the outside, just as the smooth concrete walls, faux marble ticket counters, and walnut paneling in the store and auditorium exude solidity on the inside. Chipperfield’s building delivers spatial quality at a high level.

Controversies forgotten

The question of whether the underlying concept of an archaeological promenade was correct at all seems obsolete due to the increase in crowds still expected with the opening of the neighboring Humboldt Forum. The museums on the island were never designed for today’s nearly three million visitors a year. Steering these masses through the museums has simply become a necessity. The connection to the urban space alone does not yet work in this regard.

The question of a suitable location for the many tourist buses is still open, said Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, on the occasion of the handover of the keys. There is still a need for clarification with the Berlin Senate Transport Administration, he said.

The name The James Simon Gallery bears the name of one of the most important patrons of Berlin’s museums. James Simon (1851-1932) financed, among other things, the excavations that led to the discovery of the Nefertiti bust at Tell el-Amarna, which the art collector left to the Berlin museums.

The costs The gallery, with its approximately 4,600 square meters of floor space, cost 134 million euros and took almost ten years to build. Above all, the initially unsuccessful foundation in the muddy bed of the Spree delayed and increased the cost of the construction work, as load-bearing subsoil could only be reached at depths of up to 40 meters below ground level in some places. The structure rests on 1,200 concrete piles with steel cores and a total length of about 25 kilometers.

The opening for the public is scheduled for summer 2019, the complete tour from here through all museums within an "Archaeological Promenade" will be possible in the 2030s at the earliest.

The James Simon Gallery is scheduled to open to the public in summer 2019. However, Parzinger said on Thursday that the tour of the Archaeological Promenade will probably not be completely finished until sometime in the 2030s, when the Pergamon Museum and the Altes Museum have been renovated. Until then, the James Simon Gallery will be part of the Museum Island as a matter of course and, with its open staircase, terrace and cafe, will even be accessible without admission.

The island’s museums are also to remain independently accessible in the future. The goal, emphasized Michael Eissenhauer as general director of the National Museums, is to allow visitors as much freedom as possible during their visit. Chipperfield’s building, by the way, has enough architectural quality to be worth a visit on its own.

The architect commented on Thursday on the heated controversial discussions that once took place about his design in Berlin, saying, "I forgot about that." He said he thinks it’s good that architecture is taken so seriously in Berlin; architects should be happy about this fact.

Bowing to the past …

Objections to the building could perhaps most readily be raised by the huge wall facing the Spree Canal, which has now been softened somewhat with two windows. Nevertheless, the proportionality between this massive base and the narrow pillars on it takes some getting used to.

From a distance, such as from the castle bridge, Chipperfield’s house appears more formally balanced. The integration and continuation of the existing colonnade at the Neues Museum also seems like a bow to the past of a guarded district in which art and culture are celebrated as sacred goods, as in a religion of education.

This concept is not abandoned by Chipperfield’s new building, but only modified for mass tourism. The sublime is certainly still present, while the quality of the newly created courtyard between the New Museum and the James Simon Gallery is still lacking. So far, not even potted plants have been planned for this stone desert.

… and contemporary setting

The reference to the island’s past, by the way, comes to bear once again quite tangibly in the interior of the James-Simon-Galerie with one of the tree-long wooden piles, with which the predecessor building, which had disappeared since the war, was stabilized in the mud of the Spree bed. The pile, displayed like a relic, is not only a reminder of the difficulties encountered during the foundation work of the James Simon Gallery. It is also a sign of the literal cultivation of the marshy natural area into a "free place for art and science," as decreed by King Frederick William IV in 1841.

This concept – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – is still the basis for everyday museum business. Chipperfield’s building does nothing to change this; it merely creates a contemporary framework for it.

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