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Neue Nationalgalerie: The flawed temple returns

The Neue Nationalgalerie finally reopened in 2021. In the seven years it took to renovate, a lot changed. Did the curators noticed?

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After a €140-million renovation, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s concrete, steel and glass masterpiece reopened to the public in 2021. Photo: BBR/Marcus Ebener /Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

After a €140-million renovation, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s concrete, steel and glass masterpiece finally reopened to the public earlier this year. When Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie was first built in 1968, just 100 metres away from the Berlin Wall, it was inextricably linked with the political and physical division of the capital. Now, returning after a seven-year absence, this black, modernist temple, with its vast collection of 20th-century art, reaffirms Berlin’s stature as one of the world’s great art centres.

The renovation work has been extensive, although anyone standing in front of its famous façade would be hard pressed to notice anything new at all. It’s inside that the real alterations have taken place. There’s a new shop, carefully designed in the style of Mies van der Rohe – even though the renovators have exposed bare concrete on the ceiling, something the Bauhaus architect would never have done. They’ve had new Barcelona chairs made while restoring the old ones and turned the museum’s former art storage room into a stunning new cloakroom. Most noticeably, they’ve overhauled and renewed the sunken sculpture garden, which is now so pristine and expansive it feels like you’re on the set of a 1960s sci-fi film.

Built for the seasons

David Chipperfield Architects were commissioned to undertake the renovations and their mantra was to keep “as much Mies as possible”. That meant balancing the integrity of the architect’s original style with the need to turn this city landmark into an exhibition space fit for the 21st century. By far the largest of Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion-style designs, the building appears to defy the laws of physics with its thick roof, held up by eight impossibly thin steel columns.

Though striking and monumental, the building had a major structural flaw

Though striking and monumental, the building had a major structural flaw. Against the advice of engineers, the famously strong-willed architect refused to allow any supporting walls for fear that they would obstruct the primacy of his vision: an enormous glass-filled hall. The single façade turned out to be unsuitable for Berlin’s cold winters and warm summers. Streams of condensation from the huge glass panes (some measuring 5.5 metres in length) caused their fragile metal frames to expand and contract, repeatedly cracking the windows.

The new architects resisted the pressure to replace the panels with double-glazing, opting instead for thicker single panes that had to be manufactured by a company in China. To soak up the condensation, drains were installed beneath the windows. All in all, the entire renovation was an enormous undertaking. By the end, the builders had dismantled and reassembled more than 35,000 components and removed more than 580 tonnes of hazardous building waste (including asbestos) from the site.

The collection’s big comeback

In the seven years it took to took to complete the project, a great deal has changed. Not that the curators seem to have noticed. For the grand reopening, they went with the popular but not-so-progressive choice of straight, white American artist Alexander Calder. But according to the press release, there’s nothing to worry about because “politically-minded feminist artists Barbara Kruger and Monica Bonvicini” have shows in the pipeline. Until then, Calder’s Minimal / Maximal exhibition offers an impressive and interactive experience, giving access (if only by demonstration) to his delightfully tiny mobiles and even to large space-altering ones like the one pictured.

Downstairs, the exhibition from the gallery’s own collection, The Art of Society, shows a far deeper engagement with contemporary thinking. Many of the works are curated from contemporary perspectives on colonial genocide, the rise of National Socialism and the Holocaust. With works by Otto Dix, Hannah Höch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, each painting resonates with modern German history – perhaps none more so than the two canvases by Conrad Felixmüller, one just a segment that the artist had roughly torn up in fear of it being discovered by the Nazis.

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In a Perpetual Now by video artist Rosa Barba runs until January 16, 2022 in the newly reopened Neue Nationalgalerie. Photo: Saskia Uppenkamp

Across from that exhibition is the commissioned installation by Rosa Barba (picture above), entitled In a Perpetual Now. It blends the poetic profundity of her individual videos with a complex layout that draws inspiration from another Mies van der Rohe building, Brick Country House. It’s a dense exhibition that, much like the reopened Neue Nationalgalerie, with its mix of light-filled spaces and subterranean galleries, feels disorientating, impressive and undeniably exciting.

Neue Nationalgalerie 10-18, every day except Monday

Alexander Calder. Minimal / Maximal, through February 13, 2022

Rosa Barba. In a Perpetual Now, through January 16, 2022