I’m Obsessed with This Striking Room at Berlin’s Neues Museum
View of the south dome in the Neues Museum with colossal statue of Helios. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Fabian Fröhlich. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
I will admit it: I am obsessed with going to museums and marveling at their architecture, design, and history. I can trace this passion back to 2012, when I wandered into what would become one of the most impactful spaces in my life: the South Cupola Room at the Neues Museum, Berlin.
The Neues Museum, originally built between 1843 and 1855 and designed by German architect Friedrich August Stüler, had been left in ruins following severe bombing during World War II. It remained derelict until the 2000s, when it was the subject of one of the most innovative and celebrated restoration projects in the world. The revitalization project, designed by British architect David Chipperfield with restoration consultant Julian Harrap, and constructed between 2003 and 2009, carefully recreated the elements and spaces that had been destroyed, “recomplet[ing] the original volume,” explains Chipperfield’s website, and restoring the original sequence of rooms, but in a distinctly modern way.
Among the spaces that were most deeply affected by the bombing was the South Cupola Room, the southernmost of two domed, nearly symmetrical spaces originally designed along a corridor of exhibition rooms that visitors would pass through as they admired the collection of artwork and objects from antiquity. To tell the story of this building’s near demise and its subtle but thoughtfully crafted reemergence, Chipperfield infilled this missing volume with a space that was reminiscent of the lost domed room, but clearly contemporary—a visible break from the past while subtly acknowledging it.
The room is tucked away in the southeast corner on the museum’s second floor (third, to us Americans). It sits between the galleries dedicated to Roman and medieval art, proclaiming its newness through materiality and form. The walls here are clad in panels of concrete in a honed, matte gray sheen that serves as an austere backdrop for the room’s Roman sculpture and statuary; the curved ceiling made of recycled brick reaches an apex that brings in filtered, clerestory light below its blue-green copper crown. The selection of reused brick gives the space a patina, suggesting age, but its distinct beige-orange tone and exposed nature, compared to other historic plastered and painted spaces, denote its otherness.
Its shape—a double-height curved ceiling that takes the form of a half-oval rather than the more traditional half-sphere—is a nod to the room’s original 19th-century geometry, but plays with its proportions by elongating the dome and bringing your eye upwards to the oculus. The diffuse light streaming in from the clerestory level highlights the texture and pattern of the brick below, warming the space. The entire building is a palimpsest: something reused or altered, but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. It speaks its history through the selective retention and display of old versus new, scars versus repairs. The South Cupola Room is a repair, but one with its own language.
The South Cupola Room happily followed me back to New York and through graduate school, where a photograph of it served as the background on my phone, greeting me every day and reminding me of the power of sculptural space and tactile materials. Today, I think about this meaningful space and others in storied institutions more frequently than most might imagine. In fact, I ended up spending so much time thinking and visiting other similar museums that I have since devoted my career to designing them as an architect with a specialization in adaptive reuse of existing buildings and new additions to historic buildings.
I now stroll through museums with my eyes dancing through their galleries, examining the qualities of natural and artificial light that permeate meticulously detailed skylights; analyzing the circulation paths that have been cleverly woven through spaces or left ad hoc and entirely up to the visitors; evaluating the way that the architect has masterfully (or not so deftly) negotiated between, for example, a new modern addition and its original wood-paneled, intimate galleries embellished with delicate crown moldings.
I have realized that more often than not, I spend so much time and effort trying to learn from the design decisions made in these iconic spaces that my eyes glaze over the very objects and art they were designed to display, house, and protect. I had completely forgotten about the imposing marble statues of the South Cupola Room that were spaced so painstakingly to best capture the delicate lighting. Even the room’s centerpiece was a later revelation: a Roman statue of Helios found in Egypt and dating to the 2nd century AD. What could more appropriately sit under this light-infused oculus than the sun god himself? It occurred to me that the key to the South Cupola Room and virtually every other space that has impacted my work as an architect is based on one of the most important basics in art: foreground and background. Let the art take the foreground, and the architecture the background.