Mark: "Our father who art in Cologne" (Dec 2007/Jan 2008)
Kolumba archiepiscopal art museum in Cologne, Germany (Peter Zumthor)
The archiepiscopal art museum in Cologne shows it’s high time Peter Zumthor started working for corporate clients.
Text David Keuning
Is Peter Zumthor a star architect against his will, or is his inaccessible recluse image the result of a painstaking PR strategy? His controlled, ascetic buildings have brought him a cult status that at first glance does not seem to jibe with his modest public appearances. When to top it all off his client is the Catholic Church, which has a reputation to defend in the realm of the controlled dissemination of information and the staging of public gatherings, you already know what to expect: stylized architecture with a maximum of brouhaha.
The signs were all there. Several months before the completion of the archiepiscopal museum in Cologne, photographers were already inundating our editorial office with shadowy sneak previews of the building, taken casually during informal visits. We were permitted to publish them, but without photo credits. The photos had after all been taken on the sly. So we contacted the archdiocese, which politely and tersely informed us that we could send as many photographers as we liked, but that they would not be granted access to the building. We decided to hold off on publication. And so we set off, filled with anticipation, by ICE train to Cologne on the big day of the press tour.
On arrival, just before the time indicated in the invitation (sent personally addressed, in the form of a white, folded card that would not have been out of place as a wedding invitation) we came upon more than a hundred journalists, photographers and camera people at the door. Behind the glass, a few private security guards in black suits were nervously pacing. For a moment it seemed as though the pope himself was going to grace the gathering with his presence, but that proved not to be the case. On the dot of ten o’clock, the doors opened. In lieu of a press conference, Vicar-General Dominik Schwaderlapp read out an extensive text. He told the story of the long process that had led to the museum’s completion, which had begun 35 years ago and which Zumthor had managed to make his own by winning the design competition in 1997. The architect himself (dressed in his trademark outfit: dark-grey baggy trousers, oversized blue blazer and a white shirt with a stand-up collar – every inch the artisan) deigned to address the assembled press for less than five minutes. He said that the concept for the building had been derived from the art on display and ‘from the spiritual values connected with it’. And he criticized the marketing strategy of other museums, in which the architecture overpowers the exhibited art. ‘I was particularly fascinated by the remains of the old church, which have been incorporated into the design. In this way, past and present have been drawn into a meaningful relationship.’ The master had spoken, and he smiled winningly.
And then the building itself. Zumthor, who with the Bruder Klaus Chapel in Mechernich (Mark #8), completed earlier this year, and the St Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg (1989) has already shown that he is not insensitive to the seductions of Catholic mysticism, has created a museum that combines the spirituality of the two houses of worship with the sensitivity of one of his earlier buildings, the Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997). The museum in Cologne takes its name from the church that used to stand on this site and was bombarded in 1943 (‘the year of my birth,’ Zumthor emphasized). In the ruins of the Kolumba Church, in 1950, Gottfried Böhm, the hero of post-war German church architecture, built a small concrete chapel. Later, in the 1970s, archaeological digs unearthed the foundations of earlier churches, dating from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. The diocese decided to integrate the Böhm chapel and the remnants of the foundations in a new museum building for ecclesiastical art. The collection had previously been housed in an unused section of the Roman-Germanic Museum on the nearby Roncalliplatz, but that location lacked sufficient space to properly exhibit the works of art. In his design, Zumthor used the portions of the walls of the ruins of the Kolumba Church that were still standing as the basis for the new outside walls. Inside, the old foundations can be viewed from a gangplank on the ground floor. Irregular, small perforations in the massive outer walls bring fresh air and filtered natural light into this space – a requisite for the preservation of the digs. In order to carry out the perforations, Zumthor developed a new, tile-like brick (54 x 21.5 x 4 cm) for this building, various variants of which he tested in a trial installation in the courtyard of the Ursuline Gymnasium, just to the north of the old city centre. The result is an impressive amalgam, which combines the chaos of history with the ethereal style that is so typical of Zumthor’s work.
The museum section is located for the most part on the first and second floors. Narrow, high stairwells lead to the exhibition galleries, where old and new art are displayed side by side. Floor-to-ceiling windows, seemingly without frames, bring natural light and views to a large number of rooms. This is not generally a feature in museums, but here it works. Zumthor uses his well-known bag of tricks in the interior. Joints are nowhere to be seen. Floors, walls and ceilings are seamless and smooth throughout the building. The heavy building mass of the concrete floors and the 60-cm-thick brick walls are designed to fully compensate the movement and setting of the various building elements. Only the line between the floors and the walls has been consistently provided with an optical joint that makes skirting boards unnecessary. The arsenal of materials has been similarly kept to a minimum: light-beige walls finished in clay stucco, floors of Jura limestone, terrazzo and mortar, ceiling elements featuring grey cast mortar, white steel for the window frames and doors, several different woods, curtains of brown leather and light-grey silk. It’s all very aesthetic.
Last year, at a press gathering on the occasion of the annual architecture lecture at the Royal Academy in London, Zumthor lamented about his reputation. His reclusive life in the Swiss mountain village of Haldenstein, the cliché emphasis on craftsmanship that crops up in virtually every discussion of his work, his refusal to work for corporate clients: it all contributes to the image of a headstrong architect, who might make beautiful things, but is also a bit less than worldly. The Catholic Church is not much help in building a positive image, either. The day after the press tour, the arch-conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner inaugurated the new museum with a mass in Cologne’s cathedral, a few streets away. During his sermon he said, ‘Wherever culture is disassociated from religion, it becomes mere ritual and the culture degenerates. It loses its centre.’ This remark, immediately interpreted by its listeners as a deliberate reference to the ‘degenerate art’ the Nazis attempted to eradicate, subsequently led to a minor row, which eclipsed all media attention to the architecture or the art itself from the very start. With such a client, any attempt to adjust one’s own image is a lost cause. A corporate client might not be so bad for Zumthor after all.