Critics Call This New Berlin Museum the ‘Most Expensive Cloakroom in the World.’ With Its Grand Opening, the Public Now Gets to Decide

Architect David Chipperfield's new building serves as a physical main entrance to neighboring museums in Berlin.

View towards the main entrance of the James Simon Gallery. © Ute Zscharnt für / for David Chipperfield Architects.
View towards the main entrance of the James Simon Gallery. © Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects.

How do you construct an unforgettable but practical 21st-century wonder on a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is already jam packed with striking but impractical architecture? It took 20 years, but British architect David Chipperfield seems to have found an answer with his new $150 million museum building in Berlin.

Called the James Simon Gallery after the celebrated German Jewish arts patron, the building, which opens to the public Friday, sits on Museum Island, a minuscule plot of land that already hosts five other institutions, including the famed Pergamon Museum and the Altes Museum. (A sixth, the planned Humboldt Forum, is still to come.)

Among those world-famous classical mammoths, Chipperfield’s robust white design stands out starkly.

“We were quite nervous,” Chipperfield told the Guardian ahead of the press viewing today, July 10. “The challenge was how to create something that was of its context and also of our time, in this incredibly sensitive location.”

Much like the space inside the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, its primary function is as an entrance point to the older buildings, although it does have space for temporary exhibitions. In total, the gallery spans 117,300 square feet.

David Chipperfield stands in front of the James Simon Gallery. Photo: Lisa Ducret/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images.

To a cultural district stuck in the past, Chipperfield’s building introduces a central ticketing area, general information center, restaurant, museum shop, and 300-seat auditorium. The space is intended to frame Berlin’s historic collections within the “intellectually and aesthetically pressing questions of our times,” says Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Foundation.

But Chipperfield’s new masterpiece met opposition along the way. While some have praised it as the “Acropolis” of Berlin, a city that is rapidly becoming a heavyweight cultural world capital, others have dubbed it the “most expensive cloakroom in the world.”

The frustration hasn’t been directed only at the James Simon Gallery. The planned Humboldt Forum, which will house Germany’s colonial-era collections on Museum Island, has long been mired in controversy, and was recently delayed another year. Elsewhere in the city, renderings for the planned Museum of Modern Art by architects Herzog & de Meuron have drawn comparisons to Europe’s discount grocery chain, Aldi.

“They really hold your feet to the fire, which is painful at the time, but the work is better for it,” Chipperfield said of the “robust” debate over new architecture in Germany.

Among the first exhibitions at the gallery will be a presentation on the life of the namesake patron, James Simon. Later this summer, an exhibition titled “Near Life” (August 20–March 1, 2020) will look at the work of the Gipsformerei, a Berlin plaster-casting workshop and the largest of its kind in the world.

The James Simon Gallery, located at Eiserne Brücke, 10178 Berlin, will open to the public on Friday, June 13.


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