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.

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.

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.

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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