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When a Star Architect Wants You Not to See His Work

It is quite a circle to square. Having left Nazi Germany for the United States in 1937, Mies was courted by West Berlin in the early 1960s to build something uplifting in the divided city. He chose to build a museum. The upper deck of the New National Gallery became the largest and most uncompromising of Mies’s pavilion-style designs — an open floor plan, no interior columns, walls of little more than glass. It would be used for temporary exhibitions; a cosier lower floor would house the permanent collection.

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The restoration project is expected to take five years in total, and is half completed.

Credit
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Unfortunately for Mr. Chipperfield, the aging Mies — he died in 1969, a year after the gallery opened — put his sense of mission before the laws of physics (and warnings from city planners). The single-glazed facade, held upright by delicate window frames, proved unsuited to Berlin’s cold winters and hot summers. The humidity demanded by the artworks led to condensation on the inside of the glass, and the expansion and contraction of all that metal cracked one huge pane after another.

“Mies took architecture to its extreme,” Mr. Chipperfield said. “And as a result, the building has some… let’s not call them flaws — it has some challenges, which we’ve had to address.” In a more conventional and pliable building, he said, an architect could solve a condensation problem by simply putting more insulation in the walls. “But with Mies, there’s no place to hide.”

Knowing that Mies had left him no choice but to tackle the competing claims of preservation and performance head on, Mr. Chipperfield and his team drew inspiration from their feted restoration of Berlin’s 19th-century Neues Museum, between 2003 and 2010. Mr. Chipperfield’s startling part-preservation, part-reinterpretation of this badly war-damaged building was key in landing him the commission for the New National Gallery.

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35,000 pieces, including 14,000 granite slabs and 3,500 light fixtures, have been removed from the building for cleaning.

Credit
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

When they started work on the Neues Museum, Mr. Chipperfield and his team dealt separately with the various interested parties — most notably the Berlin Heritage Conservation Authority, which was interested in preservation, and the Neues Museum curators, who wanted a building that performed as a modern museum should. “We were in different rooms fighting with different people about different issues,” Mr. Chipperfield said. “I just got fed up with that and said, let’s all sit in the same room and solve everything together.”

This collaborative method became key for the New National Gallery. All sides quickly agreed that the facade needed subtle expansion joints to stop the glass cracking. But they realized double-glazing to stop condensation would ruin Mies’s aesthetic; slightly thicker single glazing would have to do. As a result, the condensation won’t be entirely banished, and sensitive works of art won’t be on display in the upper hall in deep winter or high summer.

Consensus was not always easy to achieve, according to Joachim Jäger, head of the New National Gallery. “I think the radical nature of Chipperfield’s approach will only become apparent when the gallery reopens,” he said. “He and his team were adamant about protecting the spirit of Mies.” Some visitors would surely complain about there being no cafe in the sculpture garden, Mr. Jäger said — Mies planned it as a space for reflection, not for pleasure — and he himself was still having trouble accepting that the lower gallery would again be carpeted, 1960s-style.

Mr. Chipperfield’s rigor seems to be leaving its mark on the way Berlin’s museums operate. The consensual decision not to alter the Neues Museum’s ornate cast-iron roof beams means that, because of fire-safety rules, no more than 1,200 people can be inside at a time. The Neues Museum showed that “curators can live with restrictions,” said Jörg Haspel, head of the Berlin Heritage Conservation Authority. “It takes willpower to not always demand the modernization of a museum, to accept it as an historical artifact, as an exhibit in itself. I think we are really beginning to get there now.”

Mr. Jäger agreed this approach could become “a real Berlin phenomenon” — after Mr. Chipperfield puts 35,000 pieces of Mies back where they belong. But, even now, with its granite paving gone and its windows dirty, Mies’s upper hall maintained its mystique. Stripped of paneling, dropped ceiling, and carpet, the once elegantly hushed downstairs was an echoey hull. “It’s a bit shocking,” said Mr. Chipperfield, surveying the lower floor. “You see how thin the illusion of architecture is.” To which Mr. Reichert added: “Mies really was a magician. He could do so much with so little — even with something that looks like an underground parking garage.”

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