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Calling on an Inner Strength

Take note of the specifics: Each floor is in itself about 30 feet high. Each of the double-height spaces -- some long rectangles, some almost square -- thus soars to about 60 feet. Standing in any one of these great rooms, a visitor can see at least one of the other open spaces. And from the middle of the second-floor great hall, situated in the very heart of the box, a visitor who turns slowly while looking up or down can get tantalizing glimpses of all six of the other big rooms.

This is a spectacular feat of architectural space shaping. It makes walking through the building an experience of constant visual surprise, especially when the openness of the big rooms is contrasted with the enclosed stairwells. To emerge into soaring height from one of the relatively narrow stairwells, with their walls of comforting wood, is a sensational feeling.

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)

Plus, because six of the public rooms are situated at the edge of the building, there is a tremendous visual interaction between the inside of the museum and the city all around -- between art, architecture and urban life. This adds significantly to the theatricality of the spatial experience, and it subtly signifies the building's public purpose.

Detailing is, of course, all-important in an architecture of such spaciousness, with so many large, unadorned surfaces. Everything here is satisfyingly meticulous. The primary wall surfaces in the public rooms are sheathed in a finely honed granite up to about 15 feet and then in tall rectangular modules of gray concrete. Balcony surfaces, of perfect height for leaning on, are made of white glass lit from below. The effect all around is serious, even somber, and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time.

In the generous size and scale of its public spaces, the Leipzig museum is comparable to I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Pei was, of course, dealing with triangles, which makes his great atrium inherently dynamic. But because of the spiraling layout, these rectangular rooms by Hufnagel, Putz and Rafaelian possess their own kind of visual and spatial dynamism.

Like Pei's building, this one gives up lots of potential space for art display to make its public point. And, like Pei's big space, the seven large public rooms here accommodate only large-scale works of art -- my favorite, in Leipzig, isn't even art in a conventional sense. Rather, it is an enormous neon sign in the shape of a spark plug, a relic of the city's communist past. (Leipzig at night was said to be the most colorful of all the East German cities. Who knew?)

Rectangles have a great advantage over triangles, of course, when it comes to hanging paintings, and thus the Leipzig galleries do not suffer the awkwardness of Pei's diamond-shaped corner rooms. There is a lot of quality art to see here -- the museum dates back to 1837 and its collection, amassed by the city's wealthy merchants, is both sizable and significant. Two local lads -- the strange and hugely talented painter and sculptor Max Klinger (1857-1920) and the expressionist painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) -- are represented in strength.

To avoid the stigma of being a large object isolated in the middle of a vast plaza -- often a modernist curse -- the Berlin architects propose that the museum eventually be surrounded by slightly lower buildings. The big box would thus become a jewel to be discovered in the midst of Leipzig's dense downtown.

Hmmm. That is a brilliant idea, but in practice it could cut off something of the charm of looking out at the city from inside this building. We'll have to wait and see about that, as well. Only one of these lower buildings, a new Leipzig city museum, has so far been built.

Of course an architecture critic cannot help but leave the museum with a certain regret about the missing exterior elements. They will not be the typical modernist glass walls with fins, says Hufnagel. Rather, the surface, interrupted every foot or so by the rhythm of those protruding fins, is intended to resemble the roughness of old, preindustrial glass.

What an enchanting idea! Clearly, a streak of romanticism underlies the disciplined rationalism of this Berlin trio's work. One can only hope that the outside wall looks as good as it sounds, and thereby matches the captivating magic of the rooms inside.

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