The Neues Museum in Berlin may turn out to be the emblematic building of our age. David Chipperfield’s design embraced the scars, the pockmarks, the decay and ruination and, most importantly, the politics of the architecture and its history to create a richly layered cultural building in which the fabric is conceived as a parallel exhibit. It is an architecture that refers to itself and the changes in the city as much as it does the collection, yet it allows the exhibits to shine, to become in fact even more luminous against the backdrop of reality and its imperfections compared to the stage-managed, white-box perfection of many galleries.
Chipperfield has long been lauded in Germany and it may be difficult to remember that this now globally respected and knighted architect (at the time of writing about to become a Companion of Honour) once struggled for commissions in Britain. At the beginning of his career, Chipperfield’s Japanese boutiques and small art galleries garnered outsize attention for their conspicuous and rather un-English minimalism (though he would have disdained that term himself). His early works in the UK included a house for the photographer Nick Knight, a store for the fashion retailer Joseph and a restaurant for a then niche brand called Wagamama. ‘We had to fabricate a career to look like we were serious architects,’ he tells me. ‘We cobbled together shops from the UK and Japan and competition wins for public buildings in Italy and Spain. In the end it looked like a portfolio.’
In 1997, he embarked on the work at the Neues Museum. ‘That was clearly the big work,’ Chipperfield says. ‘But it was not just a turning point but a learning point, a good demonstration of how to lead but also to listen. It was a fantastic experience and it convinced me that architecture is as much about process as it is about results. During the project I was shouted at in the street for not rebuilding the museum exactly as it was. There were debates in parliament, public protests. But it had a deep meaning, for culture, politics and society. And that is where an architect wants to be.’
In 2007 he won the Stirling Prize for the austere Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar, Germany. In 2012 he was director of the Venice Architecture Biennale. ‘I tried to make an appeal to the profession,’ he says. ‘Why have we become obsessed with the competition between us when what we need to do is prove our relevance to society? What are our obligations? That was what we tried to do in its theme, Common Ground.’
Outside Europe Chipperfield drew plaudits for museums in cities from Anchorage to Mexico City and St Louis, each with a distinct character, each responding carefully to context and to historic situations. These North and Central American successes culminated in his being selected in 2015 for a super-sensitive redesign of the modern wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (still in the pipeline).
Chipperfield finally really arrived in the UK with the opening in 2011 of a pair of buildings which took full advantage of complex and picturesque sites: the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Hepworth Wakefield. The former replaced a previous, over-elaborate scheme by Norwegian architects Snøhetta. Chipperfield toned down the design, transforming a would-be icon into a series of translucent sheds. The project was a huge success, spurring a revival of the coastal town and creating an institution set between sky, sea and land, a place of inspired escape. At the Hepworth Wakefield he exploited the topography and a fast-flowing weir to make a building that is at once a part of the landscape and a robust response to a brutally denuded and congested site in the northern town. Its buildings are blocky and resilient, in contrast with the ethereal structures by the sea at Margate.
In 2018, his meticulous reworking of the Royal Academy in London as a more public place cemented his reputation in his home city. Its sensitive reworking of dense layers was an archaeological as well as an architectural project – London’s own Neues Museum, stripped of the politics. What, I ask, does he see as the turning point for his career in the UK? ‘I’m still waiting,’ he replies, drily. ‘In the UK, an architect has very little status, it’s seen as a service industry, a way to increase value. I spent time in Japan where the architect is seen as a genius, a revered figure. Then I spent time in Germany where the architect is treated as a professional. In Spain and Italy, the conditions for building are terrible but the architect is part of a wonderful environment of culture.’
Back on Museum Island in Berlin, Chipperfield ploughed on with the master plan his firm had developed in 1999. The latest manifestation came two years ago in the form of the James-Simon-Galerie, a complex piece of stitching together wrapped in attenuated, stripped columns. Another job in Germany and one in Switzerland have maintained the practice’s momentum over the last difficult year: the restoration of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and the completion of the long-awaited new extension for the Kunsthaus Zürich.
The widely acclaimed restoration of the Neue Nationalgalerie pays homage to Mies’s details while making an always problematic structure safe for art. In Zurich, Chipperfield’s restrained, gridded stone facade added to an already stripped-back historic building from the early 20th century. It will begin, perhaps, to see the gravity of the art scene shift from Basel to the bigger Swiss city.
Chipperfield has been an outspoken advocate for the importance of architecture within the cultural discourse and a defender of the often less than fashionable conception of buildings as a civic responsibility – meant to last and free from the fripperies of fashion – even when those buildings are designed for big brands or the wealthiest of clients. These are ideals he has put into practice in the small Galician fishing village of Corrubedo, where he built himself a house and a foundation and runs a small cafe – and where he has become a central figure in the community. He famously spends his summer months here while colleagues shuttle back and forth to consult him.
He is surprisingly positive about the future; perhaps architects have to be. ‘We are entering a period,’ he explains, ‘where the issues are less about formalistic invention and more about the contributions to the community. I feel very optimistic. Architects need to shift their gaze but they are well positioned. The discussions around global warming and equity are coinciding around the environment, the places in which we live, built and unbuilt.’
In a way Chipperfield is the closest thing British architecture has to a public intellectual: a figure deeply engaged with art, film and literature and willing to put his principles into practice. Admired from Alaska to Tokyo, he has become an advocate of seriousness – in its way a slightly old-fashioned notion, yet one he executes with care, conscience and culture. He is, in short, an excellent choice.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times. He is the author of The Meaning of Home (Frances Lincoln).
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