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Building on the past

Peter Zumthor's new art museum in Cologne is magnificently successful, in terms of both material presence and dignified handling of the past.

There are few places where a history stretching back thousands of years is more legible than the site of the Gothic St. Kolumba church, destroyed in WWII, in the centre of Cologne. Archaeologists started excavating the area of rubble in the 1970s. Apart from the church ruins dating from around 1500 and the chapel of the "Madonna in the Ruins" which was built inside them by Gottfried Böhm in the 1950s, they have unearthed layers from the Late Medieval, Caroligian, Frankian and Roman periods. Now a contemporary layer is being added. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has built a new art museum over the archaeological site, the Gothic ruins and Böhm's chapel, which is magnificently successful in terms of both of material presence and dignified handling of the past.

Architecture photos: H l ne Binet
All photos © Kolumba 2007

Symbolically and literally, the new museum builds on what exists already. It follows the direction established by the Gothic church walls, incorporating, at ground floor-level, both their remains and an exterior wall of Böhm's chapel. Over this towers an imposing, nigh on 30-metre tall block of specially-made matt grey bricks with a yellowish shimmer and a rough, grooved surface which invites the play of light and shadow on the facade. Gottfried Böhm protested heavily against his chapel being built over, although his competition entry included similar plans. His chapel is undoubtedly a point of identification in Cologne but is no crowning architectural achievement.

The central vault of the Gothic nave is now covered with prestressed concrete. For years it the struggled to compete with the dynamic ribbon windows of Bruno Paul's Dischhaus opposite, and was surrounded by the excavation site with its improvised roof, a few bushes and a faceless post-war building. Zumthor has now returned the volume of the Gothic church to the city, (it can also continue to be used as a church and remains freely accessible to the public) and in the process won 2,000 square metres of exhibition surfaces, storage and office rooms.

The exhibition rooms stand at a height of 12 metres on slim pillars which have been carefully planted among the archaeological findings so as not to damage them. The brick wall which follows the ground plan of the church is perforated up to this level like a chunky knit pullover, allowing in sufficient air and light to maintain the outdoor climate necessary to conserve the excavation site. Böhm's octagonal chapel stands in this high twilit room, into which protrudes a dark red wooden walkway with handrails that unsurprisingly evoke church pews, leading the visitor up and over walls of Roman houses, Gothic arches and stumps of pillars.

A narrow staircase leads up from here into the exhibition rooms. At its foot the wall changes from stone to loam plastering while the jurassic lime of the ground floor is replaced by terrazzo. Above this level there are no more grooves either between the bricks, in the floor, in the plasterwork or the concrete ceiling. The wrestling with German Industry Norms and building restraints has paid off. The beauty of each individual material, its meaningful application and painstaking handling cannot fail to impress the visitor: the loam plastering which close-up looks like fine concrete and comes to life when the light strikes it; the wooden handrail on the staircase which enters the plaster in stainless steel nips and feels as if it had been moulded by the hands that use it; and finally the light and shadow effects in the museum rooms, where sacred and profane art works are literally given space.

The central exhibition hall affords a view though ceiling-high windows onto the surrounding buildings: the cathedral; Wilhelm Riphahn's opera which has just been snatched from the jaws of demolition and the Dischhaus opposite. It is surrounded by three pairs of rooms, each combining one artificially lit room and an adjoining hall with a 15-metre high ceiling which, like the nave of a church, are lit by opaque windows high up in the walls.

Behind the museum, Peter Zumthor has given back the city a historic passageway and the old St. Kolumba churchyard, a leafy pocket of serenity which is now surrounded by an enormous wall of rough compressed concrete. You can sit here gazing at the bricks and feel no need whatsoever to be anywhere else in the world.

The building's incredible aura has escaped sullying by the Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Meisner who commissioned it, and who at the inaugural service held at the opening warned of the "degeneracy" of art once estranged from belief. (more here) His own collection of art confutes his argument, being as it is an understandably hodge-podge amassment of gifts from various foundations of sacred and profane art. And the sacred art in this collection cannot lay exclusive claims to reflection and endowment of meaning. Stefan Lochner's "Madonna mit den Veilchen" (Madonna with the violet) which in the new museum enjoys a view of the cathedral, and Josef Albers' yellow square hanging opposite, next to the rustic Pingsdorf Mother of God (circa 1170) and Edouardo Chillida's "Gravitaciones": this juxtaposition attempts to bring about a dialogue between the works as well as to allow their respective individual qualities to shine as such.

Richard Serra: The Drowned and the Saved (1992)
Photo: Lothar Schnepf

It might do Meisner a power of good to visit the museum, and look at Richard Serra's sculpture "The Drowned and the Saved" which has been installed outside in the former vestry, over the bones unearthed during excavation. He should also look at Rebecca Horn's "Berlin Earthbound," the suitcase of a Jewish woman which rises into the air beating its two halves like wings. Where Cardinal Meisner believes he can give answers, art poses questions.


This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on September 18, 2007.

Jörg Biesler is a freelance journalist specialising in art and architecture.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european