What was your February like? Less sluggish than January? It’s not a characteristic you could apply to David Chipperfield Architects. Last month the planned handovers of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and the new extension building of Kunsthaus Zürich were announced, other museums are near completion… Oh, and Chipperfield has been gonged by Queen Elizabeth II and is now her official “companion”. Here he talks about those lengthy and delicate projects, and why the words and sentences of a novel can be seen in the same light as architecture.

David Chipperfield, photo copyright Benjamin McMahon

“Maybe a generation before I might not have been so enthusiastic,” David Chipperfield says, reflecting on the stroke of fortune that transformed his architectural career. “In fact a lot of my contemporaries might not have been salivating at the opportunity.”

In 1997, Chipperfield won an international competition to rebuild the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Catastrophically damaged in the Second World War, this formerly important museum lay empty and open to the elements for more than 50 years, but German reunification meant it could be restored. It was an age of audacious, unprecedented signature architecture, and presented with a devastated shell, others might have been tempted to make a more radical intervention. “Architects are always trained, on a project like that, to find the bits that they could do,” Chipperfield recalls. “In other words, you would conventionally treat the old building as a bit of a chore, but there would be moments where you could really be an architect. And we approached it differently.”

Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin, Copyright SMB/ David Chipperfield Architects, photo: Ute Zscharnt

This different approach was to treat the existing ruin on equal terms. Reconstruction is visible throughout, never hidden, but the Chipperfield elements do not compete with the neoclassical antecedent. The rebuilt wing is brick rather than stone, and laconically decorated. Inside, the central grand staircase is austere rather than lavish, rising through a vault of scarred and layered brick, its former opulence suggested by a collection of fragments. Even reminders of the building’s long stretch as a ruin are woven in, without feeling fetishized or ghoulish – instead it’s a place that presents a difficult and painful past with a sort of matter-of-factness.

Where does one begin with a vast, complicated project like the Neues Museum, involving a significant and badly maimed existing building? It’s a question that helps illuminate Chipperfield’s method in general. The problem of the project must be defined – and different architects will have different answers, some formal, some cultural, some technical. “If you hear Norman Foster explain a project, there’ll be a lot of discussion of technology, of performance, of energy,” Chipperfield says. “If you listen to other architects you might not hear a word of that, but you might hear a lot about formalism and the language of architecture.” This doesn’t mean that the one talking about form isn’t interested in technology, or the one talking about technology isn’t interested in form, but the architect has to identify “what’s the thing that goes in the front”, the problem, the question that pulls the rest of the project along behind it like a locomotive pulling a train.

“At the Neues Museum, that driving force was meaning,” he continues. “It was history, and the rarefied context and sensitivity of a sort of suspended history … this poor little innocent ruin was loaded with meaning – and the meaning was German history since 1933. Or in fact since the 1850s, when it was first built. So we were left with an archaeological, and anthropological [project] – a piece of social history. You could call it architecture, but the building is a vehicle and you could not avoid the load it carries. So you had to sit with this ruin and ask yourself, how do you tackle these emotions – and aren’t these emotions your context as much as the actual building?”

The Neues Museum project took more than 10 years, and was contentious throughout. “I was shouted at, and abused, and called all sorts of things,” Chipperfield remembers, wryly. “[They said] at one point that I did more damage to Berlin than Winston Churchill! We had candlelit vigils and all sorts of things. It was hard at times but how exciting that architecture means something. Because as architects we always claim that architecture is important, and then when people complain about it, we tell them to piss off.”

Encountering this ardour only whetted Chipperfield’s appetite for working in Berlin, “with Germans, by the way – only the Germans seem willing to engage, discuss, debate, consider the meaning of [architecture],” he says. More cultural projects of the highest profile have followed in the German capital. Next to the Neues Museum, on a prime strip of land beside the Spree canal, the echt Chipperfield has been unleashed for the James-Simon-Galerie, completed in 2019.

James-Simon-Galerie, Museum Island Berlin, Germnay. Copyright Simon Menges

This is the keystone of the master plan for Museum Island, comprising a combined entrance for the various cultural institutions gathered there. The only noticeably 21st-century part of the ensemble, it picks up Stüler’s 19th-century colonnade outside the Neues Museum and continues it in a neat profusion of icy white columns. Inside, cool and smooth poured concrete halls connect to a series of visitor facilities that the island has so far lacked, and a new set of subterranean entrances.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Berlin’s centre, Chipperfield has been working on another sensitive reconstruction, very different in nature to the Neues Museum, but oddly similar in its proximity to German feeling. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, completed in 1968, is a modernist masterpiece and a symbol of (West) Germany’s post-war cultural recovery. And, daring as it was, it is a gravely flawed building, “doomed to fail technically from day one” as Chipperfield puts it. These are not easy fixes. “If we resolve all of those technical problems, we effectively destroy Mies’ building,” Chipperfield says.

Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Copyright BBR/ photo: Thomas Bruns

Mies’ pared-back functionalism leaves precisely no slack for improvement. You can’t thicken the windows or enlarge their frames to address the thermal failures of the gallery because the minimal fixtures of the sheet glass are integral to the appearance of the structure. It’d be like putting a suspended ceiling in the Pantheon. “God is in the detail for Mies,” Chipperfield continues. “If you’ve messed up his detail, you’ve messed up God. You’ve played with religion. Do you want to be the people who humiliate this creation? It’s a piece of sculpture. An archaeological object.”

In the end, the only way to resolve the paradox was to leave some of it unresolved. Chipperfield’s painstaking reconstruction does not repair all of the technical weaknesses. This of course required some delicate conversations with the client. “It’s a building that has to perform, and the state has to keep paying for heating and deal with condensation, they’re about to spend a hundred million or something on it, and you’re telling me that you’re not going to solve all of the thermal problems with the building…? You’re crazy,” Chipperfield says. “Only in Germany could you even begin to have that discussion.”

Chipperfield’s enthusiasm for the Germans reveals some of his frustrations with building in his home country. “If we had done the Neues Museum in England, it would have been trampled on by project managers and other evaluations,” he says, with some emotion. “And the same with the restoration, or the repair of the Nationalgalerie. That would have been a misery in the Anglo-Saxon world.”

Like many of the most talented architects of his generation, Chipperfield struggled to start a career in a UK blighted by official parsimony and philistinism. “The UK is a strange place to start an architecture practice,” he says, “and it was particularly strange in the 80s with Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles as the two protagonists dominating our landscape.” Instead, he won competitions in Italy and Japan and set about building there. In the 2000s, the UK woke up to his stern but warm-blooded brand of modernism, and in 2011 he completed two important new regional galleries: The Hepworth Wakefield in the north of England, and Turner Contemporary in Margate on the south coast. The same year he won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal.

While there have been a slew of new-build Chipperfields around the world in the past decade, he continues to cultivate a reputation for intelligent re-use and reconstruction of existing buildings. In London, he recently completed a light-touch renovation of the Royal Academy of Arts, with a forked footbridge to unite the beloved Burlington House institution with a recently acquired building of similar age at its rear. In Venice he is developing plans for the north side of the Piazza San Marco, one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures. At the other end of the spectrum of esteem, on the Belgian coast, he is working on an adventurous reconstruction of a neglected hotel into apartments. “In another time it would have been knocked down and they would have built something else and made some money from it, but we’re becoming a bit more sensitive to buildings like this,” he says. “We’re obviously not going to knock down cathedrals any more, but what about third division buildings? Where they’re not great buildings, but, you know what, if you knock them all down, you’ve lost something.”

Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK. Copyright Simon Menges Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK. The Benjamin West Lecture theatre. Copyright Simon Menges

For the Belgian project, this entails extending the building upward, including the recreation and elaboration of original and lost domes and turrets. “It’s a caricature architecture in the first place. It’s not finely proportioned … it’s not a delicate building. It’s very much atmospheric but it’s of its time.” The result has an uncharacteristic playfulness.

I’ve been writing about architecture for more than a decade, and reading about it for far longer, and yet I find it curiously hard to express exactly what is so good about Chipperfield’s buildings. Certainly, to focus on the pristine modernist orderliness of their outer forms and main spaces doesn’t do it.  Instead they come from a far deeper experience of the purpose of buildings and the way that people use them, expressed as a respect for materials and making, the shape and size of rooms, the way that daylight enters them. Even here we’re not quite zeroing in on the secret, as these are the fundamentals of architecture, and no architect can go without addressing them. What Chipperfield’s facility with these qualities brings to mind is another discipline entirely, my own: prose.

 

“In E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he explains the book as a design challenge,” Chipperfield says. “If you spend a lot of time describing, then the plot slows down, and if you race through the plot you don’t feel much for the characters. And architecture is a bit the same – you can love words and sentences and how things are put together, but you have to use those words to say something. They can’t just float about on the page on their own. And it’s the same with architecture.”

 

@siegrid I’d put the above two pars in bold text on one page. Amorepacific headquartres, Soeul, South Korea. Copyright Noshe

Just as architecture is a mediation between the individual and everything else – “a sort of loose-fitting suit, in a way” Chipperfield says – the architect has to mediate between the other disciplines that influence the field, and the temptation to retreat into abstract shapery. “I don’t believe for a minute that we should all become environmentalists, sociologists, behavioural scientists and whatever – but on the other hand I don’t think just polishing formalistic obsessions and creating images that are wonderfully Instagrammable and you can make your brochure out of is really our task either.” The climate crisis, in particular, places far more urgent demands on the profession. “The walls are moving in on us, and … it’s starting to look silly, you know, formalist and consumerist extravagances are … maybe I’m just getting old. But they just look so fucking stupid.”

Being outspoken has not prevented him recently being made a “Companion of Honour”. This is a genuine rarity in Britain’s baffling assortment of gongs, titles and ribbons, as there are only 65 “companions” at any one time. To put it crudely, to get in, someone has to die. The present roster only includes one other architect, Lord Rogers. “I didn’t know what it was, actually,” Chipperfield says. “I presume it was my anti-Brexit stance and my outspoken attitude to the Conservatives’ planning policies that endeared me to Number 10,” he adds, ironically.

Thanks to the pandemic, Chipperfield has been running his practice remotely from Galicia, north-west Spain, for more than nine months. Happily, this suits him – Galicia has been his second home for almost 30 years, the product of a chance holiday recommendation by a colleague. But his relationship with the area has grown far beyond vacationing. He has a charitable enterprise, Fundación RIA, which has been working with the Galician government on the sensitive spatial development of the whole region. This involves agricultural, traffic and environmental studies, and trying to improve architectural education so that it concerns itself more with planning – questions “upstream” from architecture. “What I’ve seen here is that individual buildings don’t ruin an environment, but bad roads, bad public services, knocking good buildings down, random use of green land, all of these are really destructive,” he says. The intention is to channel development so that it doesn’t impair the quality of life enjoyed in these traditional communities – so they don’t “screw up” in the same way other, ostensibly more advanced, places have done. “They think they’re 50 years behind everybody,” he says, “and I’m just telling them they’re 50 years ahead.”

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