Calling on an Inner Strength

Its Exterior Remains Unfinished, but Leipzig Museum Has a Healthy Glow

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer

LEIPZIG, Germany Surprising, surpassing excellence. With a bit of weirdness thrown in.

That, in brief, is the architectural story of the Leipzig Art Museum, the first wholly new museum building to go up in territory that was once East Germany.

Rationalism underpinned by romanticism: Still awaiting its outermost walls, the Leipzig Art Museum looks its best at night. Inside are soaring galleries for large-scale works.
Rationalism underpinned by romanticism: Still awaiting its outermost walls, the Leipzig Art Museum looks its best at night. Inside are soaring galleries for large-scale works. (By Werner Huthmacher)

The understated grandeur and subtle drama of its interior public spaces are irresistible -- as is, not incidentally, the extensive collection of first-rate paintings by the likes of Van Eyck, Cranach the Elder, Tintoretto, Rubens, Hals and a host of others.

All on its own, however, the stunning sequence of great rooms vaults the facility to a high position on the A-list of museums designed by modern architects.

But then there's the weird part: Even though the museum has been open for 13 months, its facades remain unfinished, so it remains impossible to render judgment on the building as a whole. The reason for this odd state of affairs is simple, and deflating to Germany's legendary reputation for manufacturing precision. What happened, says architect Karl Hufnagel, is that a subcontractor botched the fabrication of the exterior glass walls. They will be remade, he says, and installed this year. (Then again, that was what they were saying in Leipzig last year.) This kind of mistake is, of course, every architect's nightmare. But it helps to explain why the building has received such scant attention outside Germany.

Without doubt the relative obscurity of the Berlin trio of Hufnagel, Peter Putz and Michael Rafaelian also played a role. The three architects joined as a team in 1992, when each of the partners was in his mid- to late thirties. Their Berlin firm then triumphed over 531 other entrants in a two-stage competition for the Leipzig job in 1997.

A technical failure of such magnitude on a project designed by an international architectural superstar would, in itself, have produced a gusher of publicity. But it certainly served Hufnagel, Putz and Rafaelian very poorly. The Leipzig commission was their big chance.

So far, the silence has been deafening.

Understandably so, if one considers only the building's incomplete exterior. Standing in the middle of a large open plaza in the densely built center of this mid-size Saxon trading city, the building is framed on all four sides by temporary metalwork that looks like scaffolding. It's a sad sight, particularly during the day.

At night, however, when the enormous glass windows of the facade's interior layer are aglow, you begin to get a sense of what awaits you. (The inner layer of glass and concrete does all the heavy lifting -- it keeps the concrete box warm and dry. The missing outer layer is pure decoration.)

It is amazing what these skilled designers, dedicated to modern architecture of a reasoned, severely minimalist sort, were able to do within the basic geometric form of a solid rectangle. A very big one, at that -- the box is 256 feet long, 135 feet wide, 118 feet high.

Inside, the architects carved out seven enormous public rooms, distributed in a spiraling pattern through the building's four floors. Visitors pass through these grand double-height spaces time and again on their way to the conventional galleries that surround them.

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