Simple, Ordinary, ComplexDavid Chipperfield Architects (2013)Fulvio Irace2013General

Over the past two decades David Chipperfield’s reputation has grown steadily, corroborated by numerous international awards and the formidable spread of his professional practice in Europe, America, China, Japan and beyond. In 2010 his rebuilding of the Neues Museum in Berlin marked the culmination of a critical consensus that recognises his approach to historical remains as much more than just a skilful response to a challenging professional theme, giving it the status of a manifesto of the new tasks architecture has to address.

Simple, Ordinary, Complex

Over the past two decades David Chipperfield’s reputation has grown steadily, corroborated by numerous international awards and the formidable spread of his professional practice in Europe, America, China, Japan and beyond. In 2010 his rebuilding of the Neues Museum in Berlin marked the culmination of a critical consensus that recognises his approach to historical remains as much more than just a skilful response to a challenging professional theme, giving it the status of a manifesto of the new tasks architecture has to address.

This manifesto found its theoretical expression in the programme of ‘Common Ground’, the International Architecture Exhibition that he directed in 2013 for the 13th Venice Biennale of Architecture. In explaining the significance of the title, addressing the international architectural community, Chipperfield wrote, ‘The priorities that seem to dominate our time focus on the individual, on privilege, the spectacular and the special. These priorities seem to overlook the normal, the social, the common […] Common Ground evokes the image not only of shared spaces and community but of a rich ground of history, language, image and experience, engaging layers of explicit and subliminal material that form our memories and shape our judgments.’1

Chipperfield has never aspired to the role of theoretician and his literary output is limited. Consequently, since his 1994 publication Theoretical Practice,2 Common Ground is the text that comes closest to a manifesto. This is not to say, however, that architectural theory is not among his range of interests; his profoundly intellectual vision of the architect’s craft is part of his singularity.

For years Chipperfield was something of an outsider in his own country. It was only in 2010, when he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal, that his outstanding public role received due acknowledgment in Britain. His true home in terms of recognition has been mainland Europe, which has consistently returned to a practice that is particularly concerned with the issues and problems of the European city, especially how to build while maintaining the historical heritage. Within the span of a few years, David Chipperfield Architects measured itself against an impressive number of redevelopment and conversion projects in some of the most emblematic cities of Italy, Germany and Spain. In these works he revealed his remarkable empathy for historic settings and landscapes. He sees the context not as a constraint but an active field of possibilities. This is a point that Chipperfield has expressed clearly and is epitomised in his statement: ‘I’m not obsessed with the idea of a clean sheet. I think we are in a continuum and that our responsibility is to find clues in memory and context. That is what for me is potent about the European architects we admire, such as Siza.’3

Another frame of reference that defines this position can be found in the Italian cultural milieu, as the Spanish critic Luis Fernández-Galiano pointed out in an interpretation of Chipperfield’s work that drew parallels with the achievements of Aldo Rossi. ‘In contrast with the experimentalism of the Architectural Association where he studied, and also with the technical leanings of the offices of Rogers and Foster where he worked, this uncommon Englishman found his third way in the rigorous and lyrical axis that joins Milan with Berlin via Zurich. After the Japanese episode, in which he used a concrete prism to explore the synthesis of Le Corbusier and Kahn canonised by Ando, Chipperfield sought his tectonic, sober architecture in the Swiss and German extensions of the Tendenza, which turned the poetic dogmatism of the Italians into a contextual pragmatism premised on continuity.’4

The reference to Rossi is apt but it picks up on only one part of the complex web of ideas that developed from the broader Milanese school, which grew up in the fifties around Ernesto Rogers and architects such as Albini, Gardella, Dominioni and Scarpa.

Chipperfield still evokes these architects affectionately, referring to them as the ‘Old Masters’. From their lead comes first and foremost his concern for the cultural implications of architecture and the belief that its practice is an expression of a culture of historical, technical and material sharing. In the years of post-war reconstruction, Rogers exercised an important critical function through his editorship of the magazine Casabella. He emphasised the theme of continuity, which was much more deeply felt at the time in Italy than elsewhere in Europe. To Rogers, ‘continuity’ meant taking the past (including the recent tradition of Rationalism) into the future by reinterpreting its signs in the light of a new sensibility. This implied transmigrating original imprints of the past into a new time frame, serving as an ideological yet pragmatic tool for bringing together tradition, context and modernity. In fact, attention to the ‘pre-existing conditions’ (a rough translation of Rogers’ famous expression preesistenze ambientali, meaning the context we build in) does not mean abandoning modern techniques. On the contrary, this group saw technique as the precision of well-tempered architecture, practical but without sacrificing the elegance of unique craft skills. By considering architecture as evolutionary, Rogers helped establish the act of building as deeply grounded in a community’s cultural life. 

But it was Franco Albini, in his speech at a Milanese debate on ‘Tradition Today’ in 1955, who pronounced the most convincing statement of tradition as a practical value, not just a question of style: ‘The history of humanity is not the history of nature, where everything that can happen simply happens. It is created by people with the continuity of conscious acts, whose course may change at any moment. This continuity is not in itself “tradition”. It becomes tradition only when it is absorbed as part of our consciousness. Tradition as an act of collective awareness assumes the value of law, respected by all. A law of  collective value, then, consciously accepted and consciously followed; respect for tradition means the acceptance of collective authority, public opinion, popular control. Tradition is a discipline, a defence against fantasy, against ephemeral fashions, against the harmful errors of mediocrities.’5

David Chipperfield could well subscribe to every article of this creed. It expresses a shared quest for a balance between innovation and conservation, and an unwavering confidence in an artistic practice of architecture that hinges on a small number of selected themes: the concept of the limit, the rejection of the tabula rasa and an emphasis on the everyday dimension.

This approach has been termed ‘design realism’ or ‘conciliation of opposites’.6 The range of definitions is as wide as the latitude of the critics, but perhaps it would suffice to observe that one of its principal features is the recognition of architecture as a craft rather than a profession. This helps explain the recurrence of certain spatial and volumetric types that restrict the apparent variety of projects to a few architectural motifs. It also reiterates Chipperfield’s insistence, beginning with his early work, on his notion of architecture as a practice of the limit. ‘Architecture has severe limits. It is not a medium of comment since its very limits set the tangible means by which we articulate values and indicate priorities. We should not overestimate architecture’s ability to change things […]. The limits of architecture are its strength. Its inability to give form to a transient idea, its inevitable tendency to stabilise, is the latent power of architecture.’7

In the nineties these ideas were strongly against the tide. The theoretical landscape was dominated by ‘bigness’ or ‘fuck the context’. The ‘apology of the small’ went unnoticed along with the implicit reference to Nietzsche’s aphorism in The Case of Wagner: ‘The only thing that can be made well nowadays, that can be a masterpiece, is the small thing. Only in that is integrity still possible.’8


Apology of the Small
When David Chipperfield opened his own office in London in 1985,he seemed to have in mind a clear idea of architecture as intellectual craftsmanship, resting on principles defined by the belief that ‘having a single problem to solve is a wonderful freedom’. In the neoliberal London of the eighties, the climate was not conducive to the intimate introspection of the architect-intellectual. ‘Architecture was not in cultural demand any more. […] Stirling was the only one who offered something like an art practice.’9

Hard times bring young people together and a shortage of work feeds intellectual speculation and historical-critical reflection. Both were made welcome in the building of the young architect’s first office on Cramer Street. A group that included figures such Ricky Burdett, Yehuda Safran, Wilfried Wang, José Paulo Dos Santos and many others had already been publishing their own magazine and now created an innovative venue in the front room of Chipperfield’s office. The 9H gallery became admired for its sophisticated selection of themes and discussions relating the ideas of Modernism (Viennese architecture between Loos and Wittgenstein but also Italian Rationalism) to the contemporary constellation of rising figures in Europe. It traced patterns of possible elective affinities in a situation that was professionally very difficult, but for this very reason was prepared for a generational renewal, the outcomes of which would only emerge fully in the following decade.

Chipperfield made his public debut in 1987 at the exhibition ‘Four London Architects’ organised by the 9H Gallery. It presented a handful of his independent projects such as the Issey Miyake fashion store on Sloane Street and the Equipment Shop on Rue Etienne Marcel in Paris. These projects marked a transitional phase in his career, as Colin Amery suggests in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, but he was destined soon to emerge from behind closed doors and enter the city.

The small scale of these projects, however, was like a laboratory for concentrating on the use of materials and craft dimensions of space, in which stone, wood, glass etc. are not just adjectives applied to a surface but primary elements, possessing their own weight and specific volume. Along with the early private residential projects, the London projects such as the Miyake store and the Wilson and Gough Gallery – which are often described as reflecting the influences of Loos and Scarpa – were almost the sum total of Chipperfield’s commissions before his temporary exile in Japan. There, between 1988 and 1992, he produced the Gotoh Museum in Chiba, the Toyota Auto Building in Kyoto and the Matsumoto Corporation Headquarters in Okayama. Built in exposed concrete, all three works marked his departure from the intimate and introverted dimension of his early London works and signalled his challenging debut in the tough world of the profession. Building in Japan means using the technique of in-situ concrete. The language of great concrete slabs pays direct homage to Tadao Ando’s sculptural asceticism, as well as the Ticinese structural aesthetic of reinforced concrete embodied in the work of Luigi Snozzi.

In the sprawling urban fabric of the Japanese city, it is difficult to use context as a compass. A more fruitful approach is to create a composition of solids and voids, rather like an assemblage of kindergarten playing blocks. As with the young F. L. Wright’s Froebelian games, Chipperfield turned to combinations of geometric solids, exploring proportions and alignments, using disjunctions (recalling the neoplastic decomposition of De Stijl) and the tectonic expressiveness of massive concrete walls, heightening the introverted character of an architecture designed with the figurative logic of a still life. Chipperfield’s love of the still-lifes of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi is well known. Morandi’s whole oeuvre revolved around the obsessive repetition of a few motifs from everyday life: jugs, dishes, bottles and bowls arranged in endlessly changing patterns to form the skyline of an ordinary landscape. Chipperfield captured this in 2009 with his Tonale table service produced in Italy by Alessi. Reflections of Morandi’s work also appear in the palette of colours designed for the cladding of the Palace of Justice in Salerno and are replicated in many other projects.

The same logic underpins the non-iconic domestic syntax of less well-known works from the same decade. They range from unbuilt designs for the Jazzie B, Aram, Kao, and Lockhart-Saatchi houses, which explored the erosion of the volume through the introduction of hollow spaces imbued with light, to a private house in Berlin that makes its twofold debt to the Loos of Villa Müller and the Mies of Wolf House clear. The analytic tendency to dismantle and reassemble elements that belong to the order of a structure has its theoretical summa in Chipperfield’s prototype for an unbuilt Olivetti office. Without a site, the project was like a laboratory experiment concerned with issues of energy consumption, internal comfort and the control of natural light. The self-sufficient mechanism of an almost parametric architecture, the Olivetti building marks the culmination, but also the limit, of an architectural self-referentiality that ignores empirical determination of place and culture.


On Which Traditions to Draw?
The breakthrough from the secluded scale of the object to the public scale of the civic building came in the early nineties with the project for the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames (also marking Chipperfield’s return to Britain and the formulation of a dialogue between figuration and abstraction that had reached maturity). It was followed by participation in competitions for the Neues Museum in Berlin (1993), Salerno Old Town, and the expansion of the Cemetery of San Michele in Venice. These brought the phase of ‘small’ projects to an end and opened up the more complex horizon of the city.

The issue raised by the River & Rowing Museum was first of all how to deal with an idealised tradition and the reality of a landscape shaped to its measure. On the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire, the small town of Henley is home to the popular Royal Regatta, with its landscape of tents and houseboats. This meant the project had to meet the expectations of visitors and the peremptory demand of the locals for a discreet project. From the beginning Chipperfield was well aware of the need to consider ‘the external language and form of the building […] as the starting point’. Hence his architectural strategy was defined as ‘adopting a traditional form in principle and redescribing this form in detail. Through the choice of materials and composition of details the building is given another reading.’10

The drawing of the first sketches reveals his profound empathy with Alvaro Siza’s landscape architecture. They explore local features: the boathouses, the wooden barns of Oxfordshire and a cluster of marquees erected during the regatta. The museum ends up being a symbolic representation of the sport itself: two large overturned hulls, covered with oak planking and supported by a series of low concrete pillars, like a permanent houseboat.

Far more complex was Chipperfield’s engagement with the city, where the relation between tradition and innovation is distorted by the accelerated processes of deindustrialisation, leading to rapid changes in the significance and function of the obsolescent urban fabric and monuments. Italy and Germany were the countries that gave Chipperfield his earliest and most intensive opportunities to measure the validity (and development) of his personal understanding of the relations between tradition and innovation, eliciting an answer to the outstanding issue among those who have always contributed to the expansion of modernity: the question of memory. In 1993 he took part in the competition for the Neues Museum in Berlin, working for the first time on the problem of urban scale in the form of a monumental jigsaw puzzle, between existing buildings defined by their habitual use and an imposing pile of ruins. His initial response was not fully resolved, but he laid the methodological foundations which he had developed further by the time the project began in 1997, and which came to fruition more than ten years later. After his work (with Richard Rogers) on the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena (1992), it was in 1998, with the competitions for the historic city centre of Salerno and the extension to the cemetery in Venice, that his urban design entered its most incandescent phase, generating an approach that was to be successfully applied in a number of projects over the following years. This could clearly be seen in the Museum of World Cultures in Gothenburg, the access to the Paseo del Ovalo project in Teruel (Spain) but above all in the Ansaldo City of Cultures and the Castello Sforzesco projects in Milan.

Alongside Germany, Italy became Chipperfield’s other chosen land. The British architect’s deep understanding of Italian architectural culture rested not only on the network of his cultural references (ranging from Albini to Morandi) but also on the patterns of development and the logic of growth of the cultural landscape. Beginning in the nineties, Chipperfield’s Tour d’Italie increasingly acquired the character of a journey of cognition, matching his reflections on the contemporary urban condition with the progressive maturing of a poetic of adaptation that was profoundly empathetic with the minute and stratified Italian landscape. In Venice, a city of the dead; in Salerno, a dead city. The guiding principle was the idea of context as the embodiment of diversity; the method of the design was like the layered process of writing.

Equating the urban project with the process of writing entails a system of drafting that works by starting from a text that is already given. Beside the old, it entails coining new words. Particular stress is laid on punctuation, commas, dashes and exclamation marks, in a tale to be rewritten, transferring the obscured and outworn meaning from the past into a language of the present. In Salerno, as more recently in the masterplan for Pisa’s historic town centre, discrete elements – low-rise buildings, covered streets, porticoes – establish links, create understated connections, and prop-up the existing fabric without destabilising it. As Chipperfield wrote in his comments on the regeneration plan for the University Hospital in Pisa, to the south of the untouchable Piazza dei Miracoli: ‘The environmental characteristics of historic areas must be preserved and even emphasised.’

The neutrality of the elements of urban repair is therefore instrumental to the construction of an ensemble because ‘the pursuit of the spectacular erodes the idea of normality’11 and it is not always necessary to make a heroic statement.

The designs for the San Michele cemetery extension bring out the nature of the composition with its evident allusions to those mechanisms of assembly of the parts characteristic of the architect’s early works. Here, however, a rectangle is no longer just a rectangle but becomes a court, a slit becomes a vista and a void becomes a garden.

The contiguity of the figurative and the symbolism of the historical architecture enrich the significance of Chipperfield’s dialogue. The rigorous abstraction is brought to life with evocations that restore the role of time and memory with a contemporary vocabulary.

In this respect, the decisive work then looming up on the horizon was the reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin. This not only marked Chipperfield’s encounter with the monumental, but was the highest point to date in his restoration of urban continuity. The architect was prepared for this tormenting encounter with the ruin in Berlin by a series of less publicised experiments that marked the stages of his principal commitment all through the nineties. From 1994 to 1997, for example, he made submissions to a number of competitions for museums and art galleries: the Grassi museum in downtown Leipzig, the Diocesan Museum in Cologne, to be built next to the ruins of the church of St. Kolumba, the Adolf Würth gallery at Schwäbisch Hall in Germany, and the contemporary Arts centre in Dundee. In each of these cases, the principal theme was the twofold challenge posed by the dense urban fabric and existing buildings. In Leipzig, the method of addition by segments in some respects anticipated the solutions adopted in Salerno and Venice, with an extension to the existing volumes of the museum through a long perimeter ‘wall’, which would house the new offices and the studios for restoring its collections. In this way the project defined a boundary element that had the city on one side, and on the other, the gardens behind the historic building and the cemetery cloisters. It was a reintegration project in which the definition of the new building served as a commentary on the tripartite system of the original museum and adopted a syntax that expressed contemporary building systems without any period indulgence.

In Dundee, Cologne and Schwäbisch Hall, by contrast, Chipperfield worked by insertion. New volumes were embedded in the voids left by demolition or unfi nished interstices, with a technique that might be described as dovetailing old and new. While in Dundee the new building was slipped in between St. Andrew’s cathedral and another historic building, at Schwäbisch Hall it was the whole city centre in the shadow of the cathedral that was involved in the creation of public spaces. The proposal for the Cologne project – the Diocesan Museum Kolumba – gave dramatic prominence to the dialogue with the ruins of the church of St. Kolumba. In Chipperfield’s vision they could not be reduced to mere props, but had to be reintegrated into the building’s lifecycle. Incorporated into a patio that serves as the entrance to the museum, they become witnesses to history, welcoming visitors to the museum premises. Further evidence of the validity of the method is found in his intervention in Milan in the outer volume of the Castello Sforzesco. Here the minimal ‘rewriting’ of the ruin of a ravelin that had survived Beltrami’s nineteenth-century alterations became the hub of the whole reorganisation of the system of paths and accesses to the castle’s complex system of museums. In a different context – Milan’s industrial suburbs – the Città delle Culture is located amid the twentieth- century industrial archaeology of the derelict Ansaldo factory, and was a test bed for an analysis of the fundamental characteristics of Milan’s introverted urban development. The disused factory is located in a characteristic setting of unremarkable volumes and façades that make up the historic belt of the city’s first metropolitan hinterland, where it still stands out as the only element on a monumental scale. In its conversion into a campus of museums, the Città delle Culture envisages its development as a cultural district of the future polycentric city. The heart of the project lies in the acceptance of the historical character of the complex and the essentially introverted nature of the site, while exploiting and amplifying the porous dimension of the interior, contrasting the monolithic external curtain walls with the secret complexity of the built fabric inside them. Instead of distorting the austere image of this former temple of labour, Chipperfield moves cautiously, applying the surgical method of insertion and controlled alterations of small parts to the labyrinthine structure of the existing buildings.

Similar in some respects to his proposal for Tate Modern in London (set, as is well known, in a former power station dating from the 1950s), the Ansaldo development is a true miniature city that houses connected but substantially independent functions. This called for a treatment that would emphasise the role of the individual parts while ensuring the project’s overall coherence. The most distinctive feature from the point of view of formal invention is the building that will house the new centre. As the only element to rise above the continuous line of shed roofs, it will project eye-catching change onto the urban surroundings. Its heart is in fact the great central hall, which in its amoeba-like form pays tribute to Alvar Aalto’s curvilinear poetic. In the jigsaw puzzle of volumes slotted into each other, the great glass hall becomes the engine of all the flows of visitors and is the only element to soar above the complex, shedding a halo of light over the city. This is what, with reference to the work of Siza, Chipperfield has termed the strategy of ‘familiarity’: the rejection of the shock of the different in favour of the progressive emergence of the new through the instinctive perception of something vaguely déjà vu.


On Continuity
The Neues Museum in Berlin demanded the utmost of the Chipperfield office between 1997 and 2009. The duration of the work, in proportion to the number of decisions to be made about the most controversial points of the project, reaffirms to an extraordinary degree the role of time in the decision-making process in architecture. The frequent site inspections and discussions with museum staff, curators and restoration experts marked a return to work on site as the focus of the project, closely bound up with the idea of architecture as the sophisticated crafting of materials. The successful outcome of the project was not in the least a foregone conclusion, given the climate of controversy that surrounded all its most important phases, and the obvious symbolism of its role in the city whose reunification marked the end of the ‘short century’. But it decisively launched the Chipperfield office internationally, while revealing the need to revise the cultural mythologies of globalised architecture in a vision of cultural geopolitics.

In 1841 Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, together with his architect August Stüler, laid the foundation stone of what was to become the Museum Island. Set behind Schinkel’s masterpiece, the Altes Museum, Stüler’s Neues Museum was meant to mark the growth of a secular Acropolis in the guise of a Forum of the Arts, so setting its seal on Prussia’s intellectual, as well as military, supremacy. Despite its claim to celebrate the progressive glories of historicism, the Neues Museum was not spared by the destructive winds of history. Its purported universality failed to withstand the changes and disquiets of culture.

The advent of Modernism led to the installation of new galleries and the aseptic museological redesign of the two following decades. This even involved the covering of the original ceiling frescoes by replacing the decorated interiors of the nineteenth century with the ‘white box’ principle of the twentieth. The museum changed from a text to an unintended palimpsest layered with many additions and corrections, occasionally revealing the original writing between the lines of the new additions.

In the nineties, the Berlin scene was still the focus of a national debate over ‘Germany’s diversity’. So the case of the only national institution still left a ruin was a controversial issue because of its symbolic overtones, explicitly invoking the politics of memory. On a stage of the city where the myths of diversity had confronted each other, everything inevitably becomes the subject of negotiations over which the shadow of angst falls, the recurrent anguish of living with the ambitions and failures of a political and social model.

Significantly, all the principal monuments of reunited Berlin have been rebuilt by foreign architects, from Norman Foster’s Reichstag to Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, I.M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Neues Museum. This is confirmation that public architecture here has a powerful symbolic function and its vocabulary can become an instrument of politics and a weapon of propaganda to restore a contemporary value to the events of the past. With the reunification in 1990, the Neues Museum became a pawn in the strategy of Berlin as the nation’s capital. While it was clear it would be the container of this newfound unity, it was not at all obvious in what form it would rise from the ashes. Should the mutilated building be treated as a simple box, radically renewed in its levels and inner sections? Or should an attempt be made, by drawing on technology, to reconstruct it with scholarly accuracy? The same problem had already been raised by the Reichstag. But while Wallot’s  bombastic pile appeared essentially intact in its general configuration, Stüler’s building was little more than a stump, artificially frozen in an archaeological dig-like state. Putting it back together meant first of all restoring its structural functionality and distribution, but this approach was beset with obstacles.

The consultation in 1993 was not confined to discussing the reconstruction of the building. It also urged the redesign of this whole section of Museum Island. Giorgio Grassi emerged victorious over David Chipperfield, Francesco Venezia, Axel Schultes and Frank Gehry. But despite the changes subsequently requested by the commissioning body, Grassi’s project, considered excessively rigid, was rejected by the board of the Staatliche Museen (State Museums) and in 1997 a new brief was formulated for the Neues Museum alone. This explored its physical relations with the Pergamon and Altes Museums and envisaged it as the premises of the Egyptian collections and collections of Primitive History and Prehistory. Paradoxically, at this stage the Committee’s interest focused on two diametrically opposed submissions: the respectful and restrained project by the British architect, and the American’s irreverent and exuberant approach.

Both projects recognised the crucial value of the entrance hall, one by working on the level of the lost staircase and the idea of the ‘ascension’ of the visitors, while the other filled the empty box with the sculpted explosion of two ribbons of stairs: on the one hand History as an open problem, on the other the past as an encumbrance. Though the moment was favourable to the spectacular conception of the museum, the Bilbao effect made no headway in Berlin. The Committee assigned the commission to Chipperfield.

From 1997 to the inauguration in 2009, the construction site was truly a laboratory for the creation of a new architecture. Though the policy of reconstruction embraced the principle of respect for the historicity of the remains and the authenticity of the material, the result can only be regarded as an authentic new work, one which uses the remains as its materials in the belief that ‘we should be able to deal with the past without parody, and look to the future without whimsy’.12

How is this continuity achieved? The starting point was defined as follows: ‘The idea that you have to disjoint history is no longer interesting. On the contrary, we can make that continuity more relaxed if we can detach ourselves from demonstration.’13

With his English background Chipperfield is familiar with Ruskin’s maxim of noli me tangere (don’t touch me), of preservation, not restoration, which partly flowed into the Venice Charter. But he also knows that Ruskin’s vision of the inviolability of ruins always risks an aesthetic sublimation, hardly compatible with the practice of reuse and the symbolic significance of the rebirth of the past. In this case, however, the ‘original material’ was not treated as a reliquary to be enclosed in a casket and venerated, but as scavenged materials to be reused in a complete regeneration.

This method of dehistoricised reconstruction is not confined to Stüler’s monumental building, but includes the reshaping of its urban context: across the canal with the gallery building ‘Am Kupfergraben 10’, rebuilt from the ground up; towards the Altes Museum with the completion of the surviving colonnade along the eastern and southern margins, so recreating the situation before World War II; and towards the Spree with the James Simon Gallery, which seeks to restore the earlier state of Schinkel’s lost Packhof. After the completion of the Pergamon Museum more than seventy years ago, this will be the first new building erected on Museum Island. It will form the entrance complex, with facilities for the reception of visitors and the starting point of the archaeological promenade which links four of the five existing museums in an organic sequence of old and new spaces. The James Simon Gallery is an implicitly controversial proposal, with the reconstructive obsession that has left its mark on the culture of historical nostalgia in Berlin over the last decade. It turns resolutely away from the idea of restoration of the kind attempted with the area of the Lustgarten opposite, with the conjectural  reconstruction of the Schloss and the Bauakademie. Instead it devotes serious consideration to re-establishing the topographic logic of the site, and with the tall stylobate on which the new entrance wing stands, it occupies the bank of the Kupfergraben, regaining a level contiguous with the first exhibition floor of the Pergamon. Reinterpreting the spirit of neoclassical Berlin, without copying it, a tall colonnade acts as a filter to an open square between the canal and the rear of the Neues Museum, so expanding the availability of public space and increasing access to the Island from the Lustgarten. The austere and highly repetitive character of the James Simon Gallery is indicative of Chipperfield’s method of creating a dialogue with the context that needs time to develop incisive answers. In 1999 he initially envisioned a series of abstract volumes with a strongly sculptural form on the embankment to highlight the autonomous nature of the added volumes.


The Poetics of the Ordinary
The transition from that first version of the project to the final version confirms Chipperfield’s tendency to attain reduction through a clarity that slowly emerges from the anonymous simplicity of ordinary things. In fact it is precisely his ability to strike a balance between the abstract and the physical, between idea and reality, that gives a meaning to the ‘ordinary’, in the twofold sense of an element that creates order and an element of everyday life. In his projects we can recognise a recurrent repertoire of solutions to be applied with appropriate inflections to the variety of sites and programmes, so as to avoid any possibility of mechanical repetition. ‘We need to find ideas and clues in the resolution of simple and everyday problems, to avoid the spectacular in order to make the everyday special. In this vision the simple decisions become the most critical, the margins become central, in making an architecture which, while questioning the way we act, affirms values and resolves contradictions.’14

Unlike Rossi, who saw reduction as implying the revival of recurrent formal and typological motifs, Chipperfield sees repetition as primarily a practice stemming from the continuity of the architect’s craft and its empirical effects. Together with the composition of volumes by independent blocks and recourse to plans that restate Mies’ ideas for courtyard buildings, the colonnade is one of the principal figures in this repetition. Not surprisingly we find it in many projects, from the proposal for the Bristol Centre for Performing Arts to the second version of the Centre of World Culture in Gothenburg, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) in Paris, and the recent development in London’s Pancras Square.

The colonnade takes two basic forms, either a stoa set against the volumes behind it or a frame that orders a volume. Hence there are two versions, which touch on themes of monumentality and the everyday. They have points in common with the abstract classicism of Lombard Rationalism (Terragni above all), as well as the timeless classicism of Tessenow and Giorgio Grassi. Finally, the masterplan for Pisa’s historic centre is a case apart. Here the double colonnade becomes free-standing, forming the boundary of the monumental and becoming a continuous margin, functioning as an element ordering the city.

In its ‘ordinary’ version, the colonnade coincides with the frame: it organises the scansion of the volume, creating a grid where roof panels alternate with voids. Examples are found in the proposals for the White Cube Gallery, London, and the Life Sciences Centre, Basel, the completed Ernsting Service Centre, Coesfeld-Lette, the Laboratory Building in Basel, the Peek & Cloppenburg flagship store in Vienna, or One Pancras Square, under construction.

The building in which the canonical form of the monumental version is crystallised, almost establishing its prototype, is the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach. One of Chipperfield’s most significant works, it was awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2007. In some ways anticipating the future James Simon Gallery, the idea for the colonnade on a podium is the key to the layout of the Marbach park, with its stark geometry bringing order to the landscape. Acting both metaphorically and physically as a filter between the outside world and the museum rooms, the Marbach museum looks like a refusal to celebrate the euphoria of the liquid society with its aesthetics based on ‘flows’. The myth of speed in post-modern culture is opposed by the slowness of architecture as an instrument of mediation between the individual and society, between the building and the city, the intimate dimension of the interior and the collective exterior. It is telling that this point of view has been given particular expression in the field of museum architecture, which in recent decades has polarised attention verging on hysteria, both on the part of the commissioning bodies and among architects and museum curators.


Rooms for Art
The ‘Bilbao effect’ of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in the late nineties was merely the culmination of a trend that, with its social implications, goes back at least to Hans Hollein’s eclectic bricolage at the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach (1972–82), the Neue Staatsgalerie Stuttgart by James Stirling (1977–84) and the experimentalism of the Groninger Museum (1987–90) by Alessandro Mendini with Philippe Starck, Michele De Lucchi and Coop Himmelblau. Since then, the idea of the museum as a brand that focuses public attention on the institution and its host city has become current and exclusive, eclipsing both the values of conservation and the importance of displaying the works it contains. By becoming itself a ‘work’, the museum has overshadowed all scholarly and museological concerns, increasingly being seen as the only possible form of monument in the information society. The aspiration of the museum to become art has come to be the purpose of the project, relegating the exhibits to second place compared to the exuberance of the spaces of connection and distribution of the public and the excitement of volumes intended to characterise the museum’s brand in the urban context. Exceptions to this trend are rare, limited to isolated examples (the Serralves Museum by Alvaro Siza, for instance, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm by Moneo), or to individual figures like Renzo Piano, perhaps still the most prolific interpreter of the golden age of the cultural institution. In his turn, since 1988 Chipperfield has participated in more than twenty museum competitions and developments, displaying his well-known skill at manipulating spaces for art in purpose-built structures as well as existing buildings. Consider the Hepworth Wakefield, Turner Contemporary, the proposal for Colchester’s visual arts centre, the Museum Folkwang, the Anchorage Museum, the Naga Museum, the Figge Art Museum or the Liangzhu Museum. They are all realistic designs that never confuse clarity with functionalism. They also show that the normal dialectic between container and contents should never be confused with a struggle, the former eclipsing the latter.

Chipperfield shifts the focus of the design to the visibility of the exhibits, comfortable interiors and the ease and pleasure associated with the routes through the buildings – in other words from the exceptional to the normal. This entails the local adaptation of solutions already tested for their validity, in order to focus all his energies on the distinctive features of the brief in relation not only to the internal collections but also the external public space.

An exemplary work is the Folkwang Museum in Essen. It seems to be the embodiment of the counter-manifesto of the museum for the third millennium written in 1983 by Jean Clair: ‘A building, simple in appearance and somewhat solemn. A stone building with windows and a few columns, perhaps, to discreetly emphasize the dignity of its function. The rooms would be harmonious, neither too large nor too small. The light would come from the north, uniform and cold. Paintings would be hung on the walls at a convenient height.’ The Museum Folkwang is not an icon building. It is an effective example of how space animated by light can shape a formative experience of art by placing the visitor directly before the exhibits, without further mediation. First of all it is not just a building, but a part of the urban fabric with a porous character. The voids in the courts have the same value as the exhibition rooms, and the system of composition is about as close as we can imagine nowadays to Mies’ ideas of courtyard compositions.


Between Form and Matter: Composition
Designing by ‘composing’ is one of Chipperfield’s most compelling working methods. It is demonstrated by the Cemetery in Venice, the Liangzhu Museum, the design for the Library in Mexico City or the Ernsting Service Centre in Germany, and on a small scale by the private house in Deurle and the recent house in Oxfordshire, which almost seem to be reworkings of Mies’ famous project for the House with Three Courts. For Chipperfield, the act of composing is the antidote to the form-making approach. It is not a formal scheme, but a system for organising the parts that simultaneously involves effects of volume and of detail, the conceptual dimension as well as the physical and material.

In Salerno, the simplicity of the scheme, which juxtaposes isolated volumes in a grid made up of internal courts and squares, is the secret to its effective clarity: a way to rethink the concept of the monument in the light of contemporary culture and to reaffirm the civic value of works of general significance. To enhance the idea of a structure that is open and accessible in both physical and social terms, the project takes the form of a public space that responds to the climate of the place by connecting each of several buildings with a series of gardens and colonnades. The value of public space is the physical expression of the idea of ‘common ground’, reflected in numerous other projects such as the America’s Cup Building in Valencia, the masterplan for the Menil Collection, the St. Philips Students’ Centre for the campus of the London School of Economics – with its generous endowment of open spaces on the ground floor – or the new wing of the Saint Louis Art Museum, with its addition of spaces for the public to Cass Gilbert’s original structure dating from 1904.

Composing the structure by parts allows for functional and flexible adaptations in contact with existing buildings, without detriment to the identity and clarity of the elements added. Then the initial geometry of these elements can be altered, so constructing a crystalline landscape that can even seem to be a pleasant labyrinth inside, like Turner Contemporary and The Hepworth Wakefield, where the apparent irregularity of the scale-like volumes starts from the clarity of a plan composed by ‘rooms’ endowed with independent roofs, forming a skyline of different heights. The repetitiveness of the six volumes of Turner Contemporary does not prevent the formation of a silhouette reminiscent of the coastal vernacular of Margate, characterising the gallery as the Kent town’s extreme outpost on the beach, as if standing guard by the sea. The most immediate forerunner of this motif is found in the studio built for the British artist Antony Gormley on a site between the warehouses and railway lines north of Kings Cross station in London. Here again the principal themes are light and space, essential to a creative activity that ranges from painting to sculpture, drawing and photography. It pays deliberate homage to the Le Corbusier of the Atelier Ozenfant and the vernacular of the industrial context. With the former it shares the private, or even domestic, dimension of the traditional artist’s studio (with double-height spaces and natural light falling from above), and with the latter the more impersonal quality of the workshop-laboratory.

Composition is the key. It does not end with the capacity to arrange masses and master patterns of aggregation, but has its point of focus in the study of the plan, which entails the ordering of the spatial sequence and the potential modularity of a building. Chipperfield’s recourse to the regularity of geometry has an ordering function but not a binding force. It is the basis of an order that responds to the topography, without becoming an obsessive rule or abstractly regulatory mechanism. The masterplan for Ninetree Village in Hangzhou, China, started with a checkerboard pattern of the twelve parts of the building, from which a ‘random’ scheme was created that significantly includes the landscape features of the site. Chipperfield’s realism does not ignore the need for what, on a number of occasions, he has called ‘architectural presence’, meaning the definition of a solid reality built around an interpretation of the rituals of everyday life.


A Building is its Own Judge
The most lyrical representation of this process, between abstraction and poetry, is to be found in the architect’s own holiday house in Corrubedo on the Galician coast of Spain, a real balancing act between geometry and topography. Here, on a small plot hemmed in on both sides by existing buildings, he deals with two themes: the unity of the sequence of façades along the cliffs and the discontinuity of the entrance wall at the front facing inward. The experience gained in the long years of apprenticeship on the scale of interiors makes this house a tour de force, reflecting Chipperfield’s ability to master the plan without losing sight of the integrity of the volume. While the house demonstrates his familiarity with skilled craftsmanship on the small scale, it is also very different from the abstraction of his early works.

His critical reading of the context has not produced mimesis or false vernacular: the relation between familiar and unfamiliar is precise and controlled. The screen of the façade is respected, but without concealing its distinctive features, whether in terms of materials, surfaces or volumes. In this precise sense, it could be read as a critical commentary on the Le Corbusier of Curutchet House, with the dialectic between its frontal alignment with the screen of buildings and the deviant logic of the composition of its interiors. At Corrubedo the syntax of the box imposed by local custom is confirmed but also partly eroded by hinting at the complexity and the dovetailing of the internal spaces. The comparison with the building on Am Kupfergraben in Berlin is significant. Both raise the problem of restoring an interrupted continuity: in the densely built city of Berlin and in the picturesque array of colourful façades facing the sea in Galicia.

It is not, as usual, a heroic statement, but an act of faith in the possibility of working within the themes of the ordinary and the familiar, while bringing out a complexity sometimes hidden by custom and flat repetition. In a sense it is as if the whole experience of  working on an urban scale had flowed into this small building, in a reconciliation of ideas, which shows how the extension of Chipperfield’s professional practice has not made the architect lose his passion for an individual, carefully crafted approach to construction.



  1. 1 Common Ground. A Critical Reader, edited by David Chipperfield Kieran Long, Shumi Bose, Marsilio, Venice, 2013, p. 13
  2. 2 D. Chipperfield, Theoretical Practice, Ellipsis, London, 1994
  3. 3 ‘A Conversation with David Chipperfield by Adam Caruso & Peter St John’, El Croquis, 87: David Chipperfield 1991–1997, 1997, p. 8
  4. 4 L. Fernández-Galiano, ‘La construcción de la continuidad’, Arquitectura Viva, AV Monographs 131, 2008, p. 3
  5. 5 Quoted by F. Irace, ‘Written on the Walls’, in Common Ground, op. cit. p. 184
  6. 6 ‘Conciliation of opposites’, as proposed by Juan Antonio Cortés in his introduction to the monographic issue of El Croquis, 150, 2010.
  7. 7 D. Chipperfield, Theoretical Practice, op. cit. p. 19
  8. 8 Quoted by Chipperfield himself in Theoretical Practice, op. cit. p. 8
  9. 9 Quoted from ‘A Conversation with David Chipperfield’, El Croquis, 87, op. cit. p. 6
  10. 10 D. Chipperfield, Theoretical Practice, op. cit. p. 111
  11. 11 Ibid., p. 103
  12. 12 El Croquis, 87, op. cit. p. 19
  13. 13 El Croquis, 87, op. cit. p. 20
  14. 14 D. Chipperfield, Theoretical Practice, op. cit. p. 29

    By Fulvio Irace
    David Chipperfield Architects (2013)