Kunsthalle / Journal #3 / The think tank behind the “city within the city”

gmp: The think tank behind the “city within the city” // Nikolaus Goetze has worked as an architect for gmp – von Gerkan, Marg und Partners for more than twenty-five years. He runs the offices in Hamburg, Shanghai, and Hanoi. Alongside working on large projects all over the world, he is also the architect responsible for the new building at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. In this interview, he gives an insight into the idea behind “city within the city.”

What stands out to you about this project?
I think that planning the construction of a museum is the most enjoyable project an architect can have. That’s not just because most museums are located in pride of place at the heart of the city. Architecture and art are simply a great combination. Building a museum like Kunsthalle Mannheim is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! And this year is an exceptional one for art, with documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennial, and the Skulptur Projekte in Münster; Kunsthalle Mannheim is really going to open with a bang!
What goals did you focus on when developing the concept?
We wanted to create a sense of transparency for the outside world, to show that there was nothing to hide. The museum should be a place for everyone, not for some elite audience. Walking around the old Mitzlaff building—the new Kunsthalle Mannheim’s predecessor, if you will—one thing became clear: We wanted to avoid building the same kind of museum at all costs. You could barely pluck up the courage to step over the threshold. You walked past a huge souvenir shop and ended up in a massive, introverted atrium before you could gradually make out the individual floors. Entering the museum was awkward and going round it was difficult. We all agreed that a museum of the future had to be welcoming and extroverted over anything else. We wanted to send a message to the outside world, one that would awaken visitors’ curiosity and draw in anyone who was interested.
What was the greatest challenge?
Creating a structure that would both incorporate the specifics of its surroundings and would also enter into a dialog with the art deco Billing building next door. This task requires great sensitivity on the part of the architect, because it’s this dialog between old and new that is so exciting. Stripping the architecture of the new building down to the bare essentials creates a direct contrast to the Billing building’s elaborate façade. Combing the two into a museum ensemble poses a huge challenge. Another difficult task was working together with very famous stars of the art scene, such as James Turrell, William Kentridge, or Anselm Kiefer, whose works will be on display in the Kunsthalle. We wanted to provide these exceptional artists with a unique home where they could completely express themselves. We didn’t want them to feel like they were competing with the architecture, but living in harmony with it instead.
How exactly do the plans reflect this approach?
Architects normally want to create their own work of art and forget about the pieces that are exhibited there. They crush them with the weight of their own vision. We therefore considered it crucial to create introverted exhibition spaces that serve the art within them and steer clear of entering into competition with it. That’s how we quickly came up with the idea of a series of joined-up cubes, each representing an individual exhibition space. The metal mesh façade of the Kunsthalle brings all this diversity together into one cohesive whole.
So does the special metal mesh facade serve a higher purpose?
If you took away the metal mesh, you’d look straight in on the many small cubes that are divided by walkways and open spaces. We did, however, want visitors to take a second look and be able to see in. That’s why we chose a translucent material for the façade. Mannheim is a city famous for high-quality craftwork: If you take a close look at the mesh, you can see the delicate rods and fine pipes that are woven together like a carpet by stainless steel wire. It’s a fascinating product in terms of craftsmanship; the bronze-plated steel material makes it stand out from the cubes it covers, which are made of fiber concrete. The mesh is bronze-plated to bring out the color of the sandstone buildings nearby.
How did the vision of the “city within a city” come about?
We see Mannheim as a city of building blocks that make up an impressive grid that looks like a chessboard. Thinking in terms of these complex, specific building blocks was something we wanted to retain in our plans for the museum: Visitors will realize straight away that the whole building is made up of lots of differently sized small cubes. Whenever they emerge from these exhibition cubes, they come face-to-face with a view of the city again. This creates a conversation between the art on display in the cubes and the city, which can be experienced from the glass foyers that link the different exhibition spaces. The central “market place” is a meeting-place at the heart of the Kunsthalle—an ideal place to start the tour, which leads you from cube to cube over bridges and walkways. That’s how the vision of a “city within a city” develops into a concept.
How much did the design change during the planning phase?
The continual dialog between the city and our client, Ulrike Lorenz, meant that the specifics of the design were constantly being nailed down. But the initial idea was only ever strengthened, never changed. Of course, we had to make some adjustments to bring the cost down—we made the whole museum a little bit smaller, for example. But this didn’t affect the exhibition rooms—we saved space by trimming down the technical and storage space. On the whole, we increased the level of detail on the façade and constantly sought ways to strip the interior architecture down to the bare essentials. We can be proud to say that the original design survived both the cost-cutting measures and the multiple discussions with all the official channels that were involved in the planning process.

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