The embedded nomadSikkens FoundationChristian Rapp29.3.2015General

Laudation by Christian Rapp, delivered at the Sikkens Prize Ceremony held at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam on 29 March 2015, honoring David Chipperfield with the Sikkens Prize

The embedded nomad

In the ‘old world’ of Europe the expansion of the city, that accelerated during the Industrial Revolution and never stopped since, has halted. So have parallel trends of urban implosion. Instead, it seems, comes a world with a more static outline. Morphological change takes place within the existing fabric. The basic approach of architects follows. Instead of creating buildings out of the blue, the trend is towards reinvention, each time when certain functions have to be accommodated.

We, Europeans, still have to re-set ourselves to the habit of a spatial culture that lacks the usual outward orientation. We forgot about such a world since the 18th Century. What architects loose, doing this, is the empty sheet of an untouched building site: the tabula rasa, as it is called. What is won is the evident necessity to understand a context, before one dares to intervene with something new.

The sensitivity to context was minted in the ‘old world’ of Europe and it has been there already for a few decades, presumably as a byproduct of postmodernism. The consciousness of what the idea of context means, has become so widespread among architects that references to it have turned into cliché’s. Having an eye on the context means generally not knowing what to do and making mediocre architecture. It helps explaining why some have come to a conclusion in reverse. They say: ‘fuck context’ - and we understand why it has to be said in that way. It is because so much of current architecture does not seem to be equal to the task of improving the city with buildings that are really relevant.   

This is the moment when David Chipperfield enters the scene, being the prize winner of today. He is a specialist in issues of context. The relevance of the works of his office, David Chipperfield Architects (DCA), is that they make one aware of the complexities and subtleties that are at stake when an architect really attempts to express a certain articulated sense of place.

Awareness of such a sense does not necessarily imply that colour is directly involved, to stress continuity between old and new. That may sound strange, in case of this award of the Sikkens Prize. Well, there is actually colour in the buildings of DCA, but it is normally subdued, often following the intrinsic qualities of the material. Colour is rarely added, but more often it is derived from the material. It is the material that speaks, with its physical tactility, also with the finish of its surface. Colour functions at DCA as one of the means to articulate the physical essence of a certain artifact with a certain history. But it is just one of the ingredients that is used by DCA to make sense of the great variation of urban realities where they implement their buildings, each with its own sense of place.

Originally, the office is active in England, but even more on the European continent, with two branches (Berlin and Milan), and also, finally, in Asia, Shanghai to be more precise. That indicates a globalized practice, typical for a certain elite in architecture that knew how to use the liberty to move and operate, a freedom that became available for many in the years after 1989, the year of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It has introduced a practice of architects, traveling continuously, producing a kind of nomadic architecture. Also DCA cannot, with their multinational aspirations, escape getting more or less footloose.

But the seductions experienced to get global have not remained unanswered. Counterforce has been mobilized. It is as if the various office environments of DCA - in London, Berlin, Milan, Shanghai - have been consciously arranged, organized and equipped to really root where they are. DCA is a multinational, governed with a strategic, even sly consciousness of how and when to act as an architect with ambition, and very much aware of the place where the work is being done.

When asked how his talent to cope with a certain environment must be described, David Chipperfield is not particularly fond of the words ‘merging’ or ‘blending’. The word preferred instead is ‘embedding - and it indeed suggests the ambition to act in a certain context with attention to what is convenient. This ambition refers to the commercial and political strategy needed to get the work done. It is also literally applicable to the treatment of the buildings.

Another explanatory term that is used by David Chipperfield to describe his ambitions is ‘common ground’. It was the title of the Biennale in Venice that was curated by him in 2012. The title implies the obligation of an architect to cope with and understand where he is. In the environment of a Biennale - ultimately a scenery for the progress of global culture in general and also of the international architectural jetset in particular - it must be understood as a critical position towards the centrifugal trends in current architecture, which are indeed very difficult to avoid.

Let us now turn to the architectural work of DCA, which clearly shows the meaning of ‘common ground’ in practice. In reality, common ground is an ambition that sometimes implies extreme complexities, depending on where the work is being done. However, being sensitive to context does not automatically imply being docile. One could also add qualities to the context, or react to it with complete denial in case the existing appears beyond hope. Inevitably, dealing with context is a complex assignment.

What to do for example, when the building site is a former industrial location, bordering a main railway station? - The classical repertoire of architecture wouldn’t offer any solutions. This happened to be the starting point in Zurich, where DCA was commissioned to design a new office building. It was part of an ensemble of four new buildings, each built by architects of reputation.

DCA designed a flexible interior - which is customary in the commercial world - dressed up with a facade that could be described as simple and rational. But by applying bas-relief, with a printed aluminum mesh with different levels of perforation, the building has gained presence with unusual tectonic qualities. It makes the building recognizable. On a location like this, a sense of place is not something to be deduced from the existing, it has to be created.

Similar is the approach in the City of Justice, built in Barcelona. It is a huge complex, on a location next to a dominant access to the city centre. Considering the standards of DCA, it is a relatively free composition of volumes. However, the presence on the outside is very restrained.

What the building basically offers, is the strong rhythm of a carefully detailed fenestration pattern, effective enough to anchor the complex in the city of Barcelona. What happens on the inside is not expressed on the outside, which is the result of the following basic phenomenon in urbanism: by extending a certain scale, the external appearance becomes an issue on its own.

However, even if the the complex in Barcelona is big enough to dictate its environment, a birds eye perspective shows that even now, ‘embedding’ is not an empty phrase. By choosing a color-spectrum that matches the surrounding buildings, the iratic nature of the area gains a matured identity.

Then there is an example fitting in a typological category in which DCA has become a specialist, realizing a lot of buildings: the category of museum architecture. The Museum of Folkwang in Essen is, again, a fine example of restrained architecture. It is made with minimalist means, not attempting at the grand gesture or the symbolic. As it is located in Germany’s Ruhr area, the appearance of this building can be explained out of the Wiederaufbau character of the environment, which bears no obvious traits of beauty, neither in the landscape nor in the buildings.

But there is more to it. The attractive presence of the building has much to do with the translucent alabaster-like facade, that reflects the various colors of natural light in at least as many atmospheres.

Taking only these buildings into account, one might conclude that what connects them is a preference for restrained means. Starting with regular compositions and rhythms, added tectonic elaborations of the basis concept turn the various designs into very sophisticated buildings. They deserve a prominent place in whatever environment they have been developed for.

It is in this preference for restrain that these buildings seem to expose the early past of their creator David Chipperfield. He started his career in the early eighties, working with among others Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. These heroes of British minimalism apparently have left a deep imprint on the aesthetic inclinations of their collaborator of a younger generation.

Although minimalism is a word that suggests low tolerance for variation, both Rogers and Foster have proved that it can be the upbeat for designs made later in life that sometimes tends towards exuberance. A minimalist impulse may lead to an artistic evolution with many surprising outcomes. The way the office of DCA has developed, proves just that.

Take for example the Fayland House in Buckinghamshire, realized quite recently. It is described as a family house, but if it is, then it is certainly not a family house that coheres with middle class standards. In its architectonic means, it reflects all the minimalist preferences of DCA - with a characteristic clarity of composition, the regularity of the rhythm and the elaborated tectonics. What is much more relevant however, is that this house presents itself as much more than just being a house. It does not aim at being a palace, as if it is built to reinstate a lost culture of aristocracy, it is something else.

The Fayland House is designed as part of the landscape: it is a large earthwork, thus  shaping and expressing what ‘embedding’ means on a level that apart from the building as such also includes its environment.

Context is something that is inspired literally by a sense of place. But it can also relate, metaphorically, to one’s personal context: one’s personal background and biography. A little bit extending the personal atmosphere, context is also what one has learnt from the books and taken from that as inspirational force. Context in this sense means the collection of external influences that make you do what you do.

A beautiful example illustrating the influence of David Chipperfield’s personal education is the private house in Berlin, built in the middle of the 90s. The graphics of the floor plans and the volumetric composition in brick taken together lend the house a very physical presence.

This is definitely the result of the quality of this design. However, through the composition and the appearance of the house also shines the influence of famous inspiration. This house is certainly an homage to a few historic avant-garde heroes. What rings the bell here is the inspiration of Erich Mendelsohn and even more of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Heroes may be old heroes, belonging from an earlier generation. Perhaps it is easier to adore predecessors in retrospective, with matured judgment. But heroes can also be contemporaries. When one looks at the beautiful private house in Corrudebo, Spain, one sees a Chipperfield that is designed lighthearted and free. It seems as if the spirit of Alvaro Siza has come over from Porto, to inspire this house.

The personal and educational context of the practice of DCA has caused a design approach in which a sense of place is emphasized, resulting in buildings that, if you like, mirror the ambition of embedding. It works in the context of the European city and landscape and it is expressed there in plural manifestations. But the office has attempted to prove the same prescription in commissions for buildings in environments with quite a different background. DCA has been busy to export their approach to transatlantic and transcontinental distances, doing assignments in South America and Asia.

In Mexico City the Museo Jumex was built during the last years. In Hangzhou, China, arose a ten story office building. These are just two examples of the expanding practice of an office that apparently knew how to play the game and conquer unknown markets. It is the same architectonic repertoire as used in the European projects that is relied on in these buildings.

But apart from the usual sophisticated compositions of DCA, it is seems that these buildings are consciously designed to survive within a very agile urban reality.

The ambition of embedding may need some extra support, while working in South America or Asia. In both buildings - the one in Mexico City and the one in Hangzhou - embedding also means that a sniff of urban design. Creating a threshold between the building and its environment is thought to be necessary to maintain a certain level of spatial and social quality. 

Let us now return to Europe and to a core project of the DCA office: the Neues Museum in Berlin. This building - which actually is a renovation and extension - summarizes many of the typical elements of the DCA approach mentioned before. The word Gesamtkunstwerk is regularly misused today, causing inflation of the idea. But the Neues Museum certainly is one. The building combines aesthetic sensations on a variety of all scale levels: from basic lay out to minor decorations. It also combines relevant expertises that are rarely brought together successfully: from architecture to architectural history.

Because it is all that - ánd because the building contains colour - the decisive motive for the Sikkens Prize of this year is clearly rooted in the Neues Museum.

The building is located at the Berlin Museumsinsel and dates originally from the mid 19th Century, designed by August Stüler, Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s best pupil. During World War 2 it was heavily damaged and, being located in post war territory of the German Democratic Republic, nothing happened with it until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

With the collapse of the GDR the Neues Museum re-appeared in a completely different culture. 32 The city of Berlin had just adopted the method of the so-called  Kritische Rekonstruktion for the renewal of the historic city. It was invented by Joseph Paul Kleihues during the Internationale Bau Ausstellung of 1987 and afterwards translated into policy by the powerful building director of the Berlin senate, Hans Stimmann.

From then on, building heights, typologies and materials would be enforced upon principals and their architects, with a particular interpretation of the essence of the history of Berlin as instruction manual. It inspired a sharp polemics among architects, in which the painful Schuldfrage was not avoided. When also the connection with the Nazi state was made, the renewal of Berlin became a very risky subject for all.

Perhaps to avoid a real collision of opinions and visions, many, if not all, commissions for public buildings went to foreign architects in those days. Peter Eisenman built the Holocaust Monument, Norman Foster was hired for the Reichstag. The competition for the Reichstag was organized parallel to the follow up competition for the Museumsinsel, in particular for the Neues Museum.

David Chipperfield was still unknown at the time. He had opened a studio only three years earlier and had not built very much until that moment. But he was anyhow invited to take part.

Entrants to the competition were asked to address the building’s refurbishment in tandem with developing a masterplan for the whole of the Museumsinsel. Initially, the jury awarded a first prize to Giorgio Grassi, but in the following year his design was rejected for its presumed excess of rigidity. Then the principal’s interest became focused on the contrasting proposals of Chipperfield and Gehry. A choice for a spectacular conception seemed obvious, so Gehry could have had the best opportunity. But in fact he had not. The Bilbao effect apparently did not extend to Berlin.

It can be taken that Chipperfield ending first in this prestigious competition is a clear evidence that he had learned how to realize his ambitions strategically. By taking part in many competitions, he was up to discovering the full potential of Europe. And he also won quite a few. This experience may have been helpful in defining the approach that the office finally chose for the Neues Museum.

They intervened in the old building with archeological precision, going from room to room, element to element, decoration to decoration. It is seductive to look for a inspirational clue in some of the best of the Italian restoration practices. There is, for sure, a short intellectual line between David Chipperfield and Carlo Scarpa. But on this occasion we will rather emphasize how the ultimate design of DCA for the Neues Museum connects with a German tradition, that has remained fairly unknown, while being extremely interesting. It is the inspiration for the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, as it was restored after the war by the architect Hans Döllgast.

Just like the Neues Museum in Berlin, the Alte Pinakothek is one of the most important museums of the 19th century. It signifies an important architectural design in the oeuvre of the neoclassicist architect Leo von Klenze. Also like the Neues Museum, the Alte Pinakothek was heavily damaged in World War II - particularly in the centre of the south facade with the original richly decorated loggia.

Hans Döllgast, who was a professor in architectural drawing and the spatial arts at the TU Munich, proposed a facade consisting of debris masonry, instead of the original ‘natural stone’ facade. It repeats the form of Von Klenze’s design, but very interesting is that the repetition emphasizes the original idea, but does not imply the exact reconstruction of all building elements. Döllgast opts for a slight backset, inserting with his debris masonry an impression of what once was, simultaneously making clear that something terrible has happened to the building in which he intervened.

Döllgast’s realized the conservation of the entire structure with a high architectonic ambition, but with small financial means. What seemed like nothing more that an emergency measure to patch up a damaged building however, is in fact a great contribution to the methodology of how to treat a monument.

The restoration of the Alte Pinakothek was not limited to conservation and repair. It also consisted of drastic changes in the Von Klenze building. What was not reconstructed were the vaults, and also parts of the interior were removed following the plans of Döllgast.

Moreover, he added a dramatic double stair, right behind the restored facade and changed the historic routing. What was lost (and added) doing this, was interpreted by some as ‘architektonische Trauerarbeit’, which illustrates that for some expressions one needs German. But what Döllgast essentially moved in this great work in Munich was his interest in the monumental effect of the masonry ‘Rohbau’ structure, which he admired in the masonry of roman antique ruins.

It was this building in Munich that became exemplary when the team of DCA started to work on theirs in Berlin. The approach they ultimately chose was a direct opposite to what has become, and remained since, common practice in the postwar period in large parts of Europe. Normally, buildings with a high heritage value are subjected to a comprehensive reconstruction of an assumed historic reality, at best resulting in architecture of convincing coherence. In many prominent cases, for example the new Rijksmuseum here in Amsterdam, this is still the practice.

Attempts like these to make a building look perfect will certainly appeal to sensations of beauty, but it is at the cost the legibility of the history of the building, blotting out the distinction between what is old and what is new. It seems as if modern restorations oblige buildings to ‘stay forever young’.

Both the Alte Pinakothek and the Neues Museum make one realize that it does not have to be that way.

There are other possibilities to treat an old and damaged building. The honorable Schinkel already knew that [r]estoration should only extend to defects that pose a threat or are likely to do so in the future, and these defects should be rendered safe as inconspicuously as possible.

This attitude was brought into practice at the Neues Museum. The chosen approach was custom-made, staying very close to the building-as-found. Depending on the nature and size of the specific damage, each room received an adequate treatment. In rare cases plaster and murals were completed, just as happened with some ornamented surfaces. But in most cases restoration meant here the maintenance of the original surface. 

Such was also the method chosen for the facades on the outside. Basically it started with the conservation and maintenance of the existing plaster, when necessary added with new plaster in a lighter tone.

The design concept of the Neues Museum is rather a collection of actions than a generic idea that is applied through the whole building. This also strongly influences the aesthetic effect that is achieved. Old age is a phenomenon that provokes a variety of reactions. In case its physical appearance causes disgust, the right thing to do in reaction seems to be camouflage, or even plastic surgery. Expressed in the building language of restoration, the equivalent may look something like the Rijksmuseum:

An aged building after a serious face lift. The opposite is when a restoration is used to stage ‘the aura of the original’, not by hiding but by exposing the traces of old age. A restoration can be used to emphasize the monumental and ascetic effects of spaces without plaster, painting or finish. It is this effect of ‘Rohbau’ and exposed old age that explains the magic of DCA’s interventions in the Neues Museum.   

The Neues Museum is a project that resets the standards of architecture, offering an approach of the sense of place that includes pleasure in the qualities of old age. It has supported the reputation of DCA, which has spread all over the world. Succes is infectious; it creates new opportunities. In case of DCA, after the Neues Museum more assignments in a similar category of highly qualified monuments have followed.

The climax of this is the quite recent assignment for the restoration of the Nationalgalerie of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, again in Berlin, the introduction of which would deserve a lecture on its own. As a prologue of the real work, DCA had the opportunity to do something funny, which seemed to ironize the monumental status of the building of Mies. It took place during the last months of 2014. In an installation called ‘Sticks and Stones’ DCA filled the huge span of the central exhibition space, supported only on columns at the edges of the building, with 144 tree trunks. They were placed on the intersections of the cassette ceiling. What do they do there? The tree trunks refer to the enormous, dispersed corpus of knowledge on the column, that was created since the early days of the primitive hut, when bearing and being borne got their first interpretations in building: the interaction of column and beam as an eternal theme in history. Many, many applications followed, until today. Within these later applications, Mies’s Nationalgalerie is a highly sophisticated interpretation of how this core issue might be addressed.  We will have to wait to evaluate what DCA does with this holy building.     

The restoration projects of DCA take place in a high ranking category of buildings. They belong to the rare type of artifacts that create a sense of place. Their relevance is beyond dispute because they embody one of the very few collective functions that remain vital in civic society. Mainstream culture has swallowed up much of the traditional cultural hierarchies; but museums are still considered to be places of culminated meaning. The recognition of the rich potential of a museumprogram has caused a boom all over the world in creating new buildings for it with splendor. Quite often David Chipperfield appears to be the architect.

That was also the case in the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar, finished almost ten years ago. Here something wonderful has happened, not so much because the expressive beauty of what the museum collection has to offer, because this collection has a rather studious and introverted character. It is wonderful because the design actions that have been executed here have led to a very good building with a strong connection to its environment. The interior offers a grand series of flights and a sequence of five well-balanced galleries. Outside a colonnade shapes a subtle transition from landscape to the museum program.

Asked about the motive to use such a colonnade, David Chipperfield answers that in many cases a program for a building appears nowadays to be relatively trivial. There is not much to get excited about, at least not in architectural terms. The program is just ‘a naked little animal’, to quote Chipperfield. That is not per se something to get depressed by, as long as you take it as an invitation to invent additions to the linguistic repertoire of modernist architecture.

And that is when the column and the colonnade may be welcomed again in the repertoire that is available for architects. Colonnades, wrapped around buildings, add to the public appearance of buildings, causing inter stitched spaces between inside and outside, even when the program of the interior has not much to offer.

This is one of the many ways to create ‘common ground’, wherever you are. Ironically it has become the unique selling point of an office that acts globalized and behaves completely cosmopolitan. The paradox is that you have to behave nomadic in order to understand where you are. The buildings of DCA illustrate the wide spectrum of possible answers.

Laudation by Christian Rapp

Sikkens Prize Ceremony
Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, 29 March 2015