Architecture: The RAF took out a Berlin museum. They've asked a Brit to put it back

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The Independent Online
The Neues museum, first bombed and then neglected, will be restored by a young British architect, David Chipperfield. Who did he beat to the contract? None other than the man behind Bilbao's Guggenheim museum. Why did he win? Nonie Niesewand explains

News this week that David Chipperfield had beaten Frank Gehry to design the pounds 100m Neues museum in Berlin was a bit of a bombshell. The Neues museum - not so new since Stuller designed it in the 19th century to house their classical antiquities - is no stranger to bombs going off, having lost one of its wings to the RAF during the Second World War.

Next door to Schinkel's Altes museum and the Pergamon in what used to be East Berlin, its contents, including Nefertiti's exquisite little head, have been stopping out all over town as years of neglect took its toll on the partially ruined building, with its elaborate interiors sporting columns and colourful frescos.

The museum's directors, funded by the state and monitored by the Berlin building preservationists, determined to restore the museum, and at the same time introduce new exhibition space and link it to its two haughty museum-piece neighbours. The first phase of a competition in 1994 was won by an Italian rationalist, Giorgio Grassi. Then the project went on ice - as the German's say, verwessen - until 1996, when Grassi was told that he hadn't satisfied the brief.

The second phase of the competition began with five architects invited to submit drawings. The final phase of the competition, Frank Gehry vs David Chipperfield, was staged in Berlin last Monday, when they set out to convince a 10-man jury of the integrity of their schemes.

Chipperfield and Gehry come from different ends of the architectural spectrum. Gehry offers groovy curves, Chipperfield right-angled rectitude.

Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao has been hailed (by David Chipperfield, among others) as the most important building of the century. Before it even opened, it was already as important a masterpiece as the works of art it housed. Gehry's sinuous shapes mean that his buildings are described as bird wings, boats, fish tails, shiatsu energy flow.

Chipperfield's solid, set-square geometry with a certain lofty stretch in scale and a delicacy in the grid-like openings is pure and refined - "like Schoenberg's music, to be studied, not read," says Alberto Campo Baeza in a monograph published by G Gili on Chipperfield. This approach won him commissions like the new Joseph menswear shop in Brompton Cross, London, and the timbered Henley rowing museum that is anything but wooden. He has a high profile in the United States, where he is designing hotels for Brian McNally in Miami and New York, a house in Martha's Vineyard for Doris Saatchi, and the Hollywood star Tom Ford's house in London.

Three years of dithering and bickering over the right way to restore the original Neues Museum and bring it into line with the 21st century split the museum team between those members looking for the "wow" factor and the historians looking at the heritage. Fuddy-duddy restoration or a radical new building? The Emperor's new clothes or a Greek toga? Herr Duber, the manager of the Staatlich museum, and all the directors of the Neues museum openly promoted Gehry. By the time the jury met in Berlin with a support cast that swelled the audience to 40, they had taken sides across the table. Conservationists vs radical reformers.

Chipperfield, who was first, gave a brilliant performance. He handed out copies of a book with sketches, photographs and text, for which he paid pounds 100 for each volume in an edition of 10. Logically, patiently, he explained the losses within the existing building and how he planned to deal with each one. One of his pluses was that he accepted the strengths of the building and sought to give a new interpretation of what was there while reconstructing as little as possible. This is as difficult as it sounds and requires great delicacy.

"The analogy that I always use is that of a broken Greek vase. You restore it by bedding the fragments in white plaster so that you can discover the figure and the form and see what supports it and gives it substance - not to reinterpret it, or worse, attempt to replicate it."

So much for the style. Now the content. Chipperfield's patient sleuthwork on every piece to be exhibited in the Neues museum undermined Gehry's proposal for a dazzling new triple-height exhibition hall. Looking at every single object that the Neues would house convinced Chipperfield that what the museum needed was rooms, good old-fashioned rooms. "The objects are either huge, like friezes, or small and displayed in lit showcases. I told them: everything you own is just asking for rooms and the right, controlled light, not to be shown off in big, open spaces."

In the gap where the bomb took out an entire wing, Frank Gehry proposed building a whole new exhibition space with curvaceous stairs, in direct contrast to the restored old building. Chipperfield looked upon the whole as one continuous project, without any interventions that would oppose it. As he explains, "Don't yin and yang it."

Having resolved the critical reconstruction and talked them through in sequences, he explained what he calls "soft restoration", for which four years' work at the Leipzig Bank proved a dress rehearsal for his practice. "Keep everything that is original. When restoring, make sure there is nothing synthetic about it. Don't take off the render on the facade and redo the whole thing. Keep it, patch it in the same colour, but make sure it is seen to be new. Not glaringly evident, but not faking it. To understand the fragments, you need to understand the surrogate form and maintain that authenticity."

This vogueishly palimpset approach lets fragments and traces of the past shine through. It is more subtle than mere collage. This is no cut-and- paste job, any more than it is a painstaking reconstruction.

A palimpset is a parchment on which an earlier manuscript has been erased to make a clean surface for a new page. Having been written upon twice, the original writing sometimes shows through. The philosopher Jacques Derrida first used the word to explain the Post-Modern condition. The trendspotter Gore Vidal called his autobiography Palimpset, and architects such as Peter Eisenman, who designed Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin when the wall was still there, used it to explain "site-related geometry".

David Chipperfield avoids any -isms, confining himself to the belief that Modernism is now ready to accept the past and that Modernists are not ideologically against historicism. "Modernists who made the brave new world had to make sure that it looked like that. We don't. We have the freedom to admit memory and to acknowledge that figure, and form, and texture are important. It's not an ideology, all this debate about knocking down or preservation. Keep the evidence, use the traces."

They applauded Chipperfield at the end of the presentation, and as he landed in London four hours later his mobile phone was ringing. He had won.

Now Frank Gehry must be nursing a bit of jet-lag. But when he was pacing the waterfront outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao before its official opening, admiring the titanium burnish of his brand-new building, I asked him about his stated ambition to submit competition entries to build the Laban dance centre in London. He is famously sore about the fact that nobody in Britain ever commissioned a building from him. " Oh no, I withdrew," he said. "Leave it to one of the young architects who really needs it."

I hope that he can console himself with that now.

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