The Transformation of the Historic Gropius Bau Embodies Everything That’s Wonderful About Berlin

The museum's director Stephanie Rosenthal has big plans for the institution, including a new ticketing system and an atrium makeover.

Stephanie Rosenthal standing in Gropius Bau's atrium, which will now be open to the public for the first time, © Mathias Voelzke

One year into taking over one of Germany’s most historic museums, its new director is continuing her sweeping rethink of what the century-old Gropius Bau can do.

Stephanie Rosenthal, who began her new post last February, is now unveiling a revamped architectural plan to overhaul the way visitors experience the space. The sprawling neo-Renaissance structure, which had previously been compartmentalized into separate halls (each one accessible with individually purchased tickets), will become one entity—accessible with just one ticket. And for the first time since it reopened decades after the devastation of World War II, the building’s most stunning facet, the gilded atrium that its many exhibition spaces encircle, will be completely open to the public—ticket-free.

It’s a profound change. “We wanted to think about the building differently and give the audience a feeling of where they are,” says Rosenthal, sitting in the large and brightly lit offices she shares with her curatorial team, which are lined wall-to-wall with wooden bookshelves. “This is an important architectural monument for Berlin and I didn’t feel it’s right to restrict it to people who could buy tickets.” The new plan also includes a concept restaurant and a revamped bookstore.

Though the museum has a long history of mounting significant shows, it lacked an overarching vision that tied its wings and activities together. It also never had a full-time curatorial team; Rosenthal is its first new director in 15 years. Fresh energy and ideas are now flowing through the building, which will get an extra jolt thanks to a brand new dedicated contemporary art program for 2019.

The first show under the new model is an homage to Berlin’s art scene. Affectionately titled “And Berlin Will Always Need You. Art, Craft and Concept Made in Berlin,” the show opens on March 22 with works by 17 artists who are all currently living and working in the German capital (and, aptly for Berlin, they are mostly not from the city originally). Each will explore the textured legacy of the building through work that focuses on craftsmanship.

Photo: Christian Riis Ruggaber

In the Heart of the City

The view of skyline surrounding the Gropius Bau is remarkable. The opulent 19th-century brick structure is located across the street from the former Prussian parliament and the reconstructed former Nazi headquarters. Behind that, one can make out the top of a cluster of hyper-modern skyscrapers at Potsdamer Platz. Then, cutting right in front of Gropius Bau is a long and particularly grim stretch of the former Berlin Wall that still stands as a stark reminder.

This context is important, because it shows just how central the museum is in Berlin’s complicated social history. It was originally established in 1881 by architect Martin Gropius (the great uncle of Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school) as a museum to present the work of students at the prestigious applied arts school next door. (Demolished in the war, the site of the school then became the headquarters of the Secret State Police; it now hosts the Topography of Terror, which chronicles the wartime atrocities that took place there.)

“The Gropius Bau was more like a place for rescue,” Rosenthal says. Extreme ideology may have surrounded it, but it was never occupied. In fact, when World War II broke out, the entire library of the school next door was moved into the museum for safekeeping. Japanese-born and Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota is tapping into this history for the upcoming exhibition. Her large net installation will hang like a massive psychological cloud in the atrium, woven with book pages inspired by publications she found in Gropius Bau’s archive.

Chiharu Shiota, “Beyond Time”, 2018. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK. Courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the artist & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

This is emblematic of Rosenthal’s vision: to use contemporary art to more deeply engage with other topics. “At the moment, I am not so interested in running just a contemporary art institution,” she says. “I feel we are at a point where it’s quite difficult to know where we are heading, so we want to see how contemporary art can connect to other subjects, like archaeology and ethnology.”

Rosenthal, who previously served as chief curator of Hayward Gallery in London, has an acute understanding of how to foster these kinds of connections. (Her inaugural show at the Gropius Bau last year, of work by Korean artist Lee Bul, subtly teased out Korea and Germany’s common histories of division.) Before the Hayward, she served as the modern and contemporary art curator of the Haus der Kunst in her hometown of Munich, a museum originally founded by Nazis to show Nazi-condoned artists.

Though the Haus der Kunst pulled off several exquisite exhibitions in her time, including a major show of Paul McCarthy, Rosenthal says that the team and invited artists always had the feeling that they were working against a ghost in the building. So, compared to that, Gropius Bau feels rather light. “The Gropius Bau was built as an arts and crafts museum and school. And it has always been a cultural institution; it was never taken over,” she says. “There is a very positive history connected to the building.”

Lee Bul Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015–2016). Exhibition view “Lee Bul: Crash”, Gropius Bau.

Berlin Will Always Need You

Under Rosenthal and her team, the long-installed black UV foils that had inhibited natural light from flowing into the museum’s gilded concourse were stripped off. Walls that blocked windows were removed. The museum was, essentially, dusted off.

In trying to connect more deeply to the public, the new curatorial team felt it was important to acknowledge the most intriguing part of Berlin: artists. (The city will always need its artists, points out Rosenthal, disambiguating to whom the exhibition title’s “you” refers.)

“And Berlin Will Always Need You. Art, Craft and Concept Made in Berlin” will engage artists who may have two feet in the city, but investigate ideas of craftsmanship and artistic labor that touch worlds as far as South America.

Dorothy Iannone Vive la Difference (1979). Photo: Monika Frei-Herrmann

“The institution wasn’t exactly a forerunner of the Bauhaus, it was rather a capitalist idea of integrating education with the possibility of display,” Rosenthal says. “The school for arts and crafts located next door would showcase the work of its students here and show off the richness and quality of production made in Germany. Even internationally, it is quite an exception to have these two bodies, school and museum, combined.”

The show will feature work by an older generation, like American painter and sculptor Dorothy Iannone, alongside mid-career figures including German artist Simon Wachsmuth and the South Korean artist Haegue Yang, as well as a more emergent crop, like Irish-born artist Mariechen Danz, whose performance-installation was included in Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennale in 2016. At the same time, the Gropius Bau’s artist-in-residence, Nigerian-born Otobong Nkanga, will be hosting soap-making workshops.

That the new program is already showing itself to be multidisciplinary, intergenerational, and international is certainly intentional—but it’s also made much easier in a city like this one. Taking down walls, opening things up, and transposing cultures, values, and ideas, is, after all, a very Berlin thing to do.

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