Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Mies van der Rohe
Modernists bloody loved a good curtain window or two…
As did Mies, his ‘glowing from the inside’ Neue Nationalgalerie is no exception to the philosophy, written like divine scripture and laid out by those seeking a new, dominant, simplistic architecture in the post WW1 era. Yet despite the lack of ornament and sometimes general fun, modernist architecture when designed well has many layers of complexity and rigorous diligence to detail.
Unfortunately too many rubbish buildings have damned the association of glass exteriors on modern buildings these days, to a faceless or corporate image. Like a car show room for example, or a throw-up business park, usually bolted together with clunky fittings to form a place-less shell of disagreeable proportions. These buildings display little control of smart design, favouring time saving, cheap alternatives and high return of the pounds per square metre.
Mies saw glass as an opportunity to animate space. Here in the Neue Nationalgallery the light is allowed to flood in and out via huge expanses of paneled glass of all sides. This allows for the gallery to be excellently lit during the day and become a beacon of culture at night. It’s visual connection between outside and in is indeed a trick of allurement, with the warm colours almost welcoming visitors in like weary pilgrims ushered to sit by the fire.
The glass, coupled with other the pristine surfaces offer a canvas of reflective layers, some fracturing light others bouncing it directly back offering glimpses of the surrounding city. The visual context is brought literally on to surface of the building and a mix of outside and in are seen simultaneously.
Oddly, and in contradiction to it’s machine-hewn/high-tech engineering, this building displays primitive references pointing to a time of greater simplicity and lack of material clutter. The canopy is visually the most basic shelter, tent-like but more robust and striking, perhaps more monolithic like a dolmen. Its protective arms are the columns that are situated beyond the glass skin creating an external corridor that frames views of the surroundings.
This building is indeed a building of oxymorons: heavy and light/ darkness and brightness/ protectiveness and openness/ outside and inside/ subterranean and above ground/ prehistoric and cutting edge. Mies employs these techniques to create a piece of architecture that responds to it’s context effectively, is unique, but at the same time is so typical of his style.
This isn’t in my opinion Mies’s best building and apparently it did used to get ridiculously cold in there, but it is a great demonstration of his level of thinking in architecture, how he used to convey subtle notions in concept and detail, within the parameters of modernist ideals.