This vast museum complex in the centre of Berlin has opened officially, although only virtually for the public so far. It is one the biggest cultural buildings in Europe, comparable in scale to the Louvre in Paris. With reconstructed baroque-style façades the design concept creates continuity with a glorified past of the modern era. The new museum is named after the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, who brought forward a scientific and educational model influenced by the arts and philosophy of the beginning of 19th century.
The original palace on the Museum Island site had been badly damaged during World War II bombing and then demolished in 1950. It was replaced by the Palace of the Republic, built in 1976 (containing shops, restaurants and even a disco), but closed in 1990 due to problems with asbestos. Following a parliament vote in 2002, it was decided that the 1970s building would be demolished and the former palace would be rebuilt as a museum.
Italian architect Franco Stella won the architectural competition in 2008. Following the brief, three sides of the building have been constructed replicating the baroque period façades as designed by architect Andreas Schlüter (1659-1714). In Stella’s architectural concept a modern minimalist façade extends on the east side and a passageway in a north-south direction forms a covered route cutting through the middle of the building. The building combines historical forms with contemporary construction, a stylistic approach that can be linked back to the Tendenza group formed in the late 1960s in Italy, which opposed the abstraction of 20th-century modernist architecture.
In the 1970s Stella collaborated with Aldo Rossi and an influential group of architects at the Venice University, where Stella also held an academic position. Their interest towards a historical analysis of the city can be understood underpinning Franco’s winning concept for the Humboldt Forum. The reconstruction and references to history could be interpreted as a celebration of modernity and enlightenment, an epistemological break from medieval times. The architects of Tendenza blurred the hierarchies of architectural references and recognised the importance of history, which coincided with the development of postmodernism.
Stella describes the ’via colonnata’, the passageway extending across the building, as a modern reference to the long corridor at the Uffizi Gallery by Vasari. This formal strategy, which creates a public pathway through the museum, exemplifies an ideological model, where grand cultural buildings could be more closely intergrated to the urban fabric. On the Museum Island there were already five magnificent museums. The Neues Museum had also been destroyed during the war, and opened in 2009 after award-winning restoration work by David Chipperfield. A new metro station is planned to open on the island end of this year. The area is an exceptional concentration of cultural offerings.
The Humboldt Forum will be home to the Ethnological Museum, the Museum of Asian Art, as well as temporary exhibitions and the Humboldt Lab exhibition and event spaces. Both the architectural concept, where the recreation of an old palace building can be seen as a form of nostalgic idealisation of the past, and the contents of the museum, have been strongly debated. Artefacts coming from Berlin’s Ethnological Museum are part of a controversial collection, which can be traced back to the Brandenburg-Prussian Cabinet of Curiosities. Treasures brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas belong to a contested European colonial past. Restitution to their country of origin is widely discussed. The role of the museum in this difficult issue has been brought up.
The range of historic architecture on the Museum Island is impressive. With Chipperfield’s design for the James Simon Gallery, the modern façade of Humboldt Forum appears as a pair in dialogue alongside the river Spree.