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Windows of Opportunity at A German Museum

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page N04

BADEN-BADEN, Germany

Nothing's perfect, says the adage, and it's always something to keep in mind when the subject is architecture. Aesthetics may be paramount in the mind of an architect, but everyday practicalities often stand in the way of the very idea of perfection.

Be that as it may, the new museum on a park lane in this famous spa town comes as close to perfect as I can imagine a building to be.


The Richard Meier-designed public home for a private art collection in Germany. (Above: Klaus Frahm -- Sammlung Frieder Burda, Left: Sammlung Fr)

It was designed by American architect Richard Meier, who clearly has commanded larger and more prestigious projects in a career spanning more than 40 years. One has to think only of the extraordinary Getty Center crowning that big hill in Los Angeles, or of the two federal courthouses completed at the turn of the millennium, one in Long Island, the other in Phoenix, or -- well, the list is long.

But this new building is different. Modest in size and appealing in scale, it is quintessential Meier, a condensation of his complex architectural vocabulary into an intensely beautiful pavilion in a park. Visiting it makes one appreciate (again) how stubbornly consistent Meier has been over the past four decades about the means and ends of architecture -- and how stupendously good he can be.

The building was designed to provide a public home for a notable private collection of post-World War II paintings and sculpture assembled over three decades by Frieder Burda, a scion of a well-known publishing family. Burda, a Baden-Baden resident, created a foundation to pay for the building, at a cost of about 20 million euros (about $26 million today).

Meier's Baden-Baden building is attached via an elegant, transparent foot bridge to a 1911 temple-type visual arts hall that, with its severe detailing and Jugendstil overtones, was somewhat modern for its time. This direct connection to an older, existing building is one of several important similarities between the Burda building and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt, Meier's first commission in Germany.

Conceived in 1979 and completed in 1984, the Frankfurt project was critical to Meier's career in more ways than one. Up until then the New York architect's considerable reputation for innovation -- and also for a certain aesthetic hauteur -- was based largely on his stunning, widely published designs for private residences in the American exurbs.

After the Frankfurt job, Meier's projects got bigger, more complicated and more prominent. More often than not, they tended to be public rather than private. The American architect was well on his way to becoming one of the premier civic architects of the age. In the 1980s alone he received commissions for five museums in Europe and the United States.

However, probably the most important thing at the time about Meier's Frankfurt building, which became famous in architectural circles well before its completion, was that it proved just how well an unflinching modernist such as he could build in a traditional urban context. This was a huge issue back then.

Modern architecture had been under justifiable attack for a couple of decades because, among other sins, its approach to the traditional city often was both disdainful and destructive. Yet while many of his contemporaries were abandoning modernist abstraction for ironic references to tradition or even straightforwardly old-fashioned work, Meier kept the faith.

Thus, the Frankfurt decorative arts museum was an uncompromising statement that tradition and the ultra-new could live happily side by side. Meier's task was to quadruple the museum's size and at the same time be respectful of the original 19th-century villa that housed the collection. It seemed an almost impossible job, but Meier pulled it off with amazing grace.

Standing on a hill above the Main River, the villa was surrounded by parklike grounds. By dividing the addition into three separate pavilions and paying careful attention to the scale and details of the old mansion, Meier converted the isolated villa into part of an attractive, cohesive group. And by integrating the grounds shrewdly into the overall composition he converted what had been mainly a private domain into a public amenity linking nearby neighborhoods to the riverside.

The crisp sophistication of Meier's accomplishment contributed greatly to the ultimate success of Frankfurt's plan for a Museumsuefer -- a row of museums along the southeast bank of the Main. Since the completion of the Frankfurt museum in 1985 Meier has designed at least a dozen buildings in Germany, including a daring 1993 arts hall that stands with self-confident modesty near the towering late Gothic cathedral in Ulm's town square. (Not incidentally, Meier also redesigned the square.)


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