Kolumba Museum | icon 053 | November 2007

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Edwin Heathcote

The cocktail of complex history, of the existential angst of creating an art museum above a church flattened by bombs, of interlocking architectural layers, seemed ideal. In the beautiful church of Sogn Benedetg and the more recent expressionistic concrete Bruder Klaus chapel, he has proven to be one of the very few architects capable of meaningfully engaging with Christian iconography and typology, with programme and emotion, producing visceral numinous space that eschews easy iconism. In the shelter for the Roman ruins in the Swiss town of Chur, he has shown that he can build lightly and exquisitely upon the remains of antiquity. And in the Kunsthalle at Bregenz he has created one of the most sublime galleries in the world. Zumthor accepts only a fraction of the commissions he is offered, refusing jobs that most architects would kill for. So when he took over a decade to realise this symbolic building in Cologne, expectations were always going to be high. Could the Kolumba ever live up to them?

On your approach to the museum, its light grey walls, with their slender, almost Roman bricks, seem to melt into the sky. This is a big building and it’s in shape. It exerts a considerable physical presence on the surrounding streets, but its lightness of colour, its relative lack of articulation – save for a few high windows – gives it a surprising sense of self-effacement. We are so used to museums shouting at us across the continents that it is disconcerting to encounter a degree of modesty.

The building sits atop the ruins of a rich palimpsest of churches, spanning the Roman era to the Renaissance and embracing a small chapel on the site (Madonna in the Ruins, designed by neo-expressionist great Gottfried Böhm) that was amongst the first German churches to be completed after the war. The structure sits delicately among the ruins, shooting down slender columns to puncture the ground while attenuated pendant lamps with thin conical shades punctuate the semi-darkness. It is only semi-darkness because the brick walls are perforated in a complex weave, generating a constellation of pinpricks of light and a gentle dappling of the surfaces. The post-war solution would undoubtedly have been to cantilever or lift the block above the ruins, creating a musty undercroft – neither properly public space nor proper display. By embracing the ruins within the walls Zumthor is more emphatic about their inclusion. The site is negotiated via a zigzag timber walkway that meanders across the ruins to a small courtyard. The filtering of the light through that random configuration of gaps creates the kind of light that trickles through gothic tracery, or even the openwork of the nearby cathedral’s ominously blackened spires, so it already subtly embodies a kind of churchy quality without any overt architectural gestures.

The galleries themselves are reached via a long, constricting stair almost entirely devoid of architectural detail. It emerges in a first floor that is surprisingly dull. Presumably at least partly starved of natural light to protect the most fragile of the collection’s objects displayed here, the spaces are functional but disappointing. The next level, however, reveals a different story. The appearance of windows that float past the floors and ceilings and tall, almost shaft-like galleries with light entering from high level windows changes everything. Suddenly the spaces are powerful – they flow and sweep and begin to tie the interior firmly back into the city. It is as if the dim light of the first floor was only a kind of contemplative gap, a meditation on the darkness and the ruins after which you are allowed into the light.

The spaces accommodate the extraordinary diversity of the collection well. Big contemporary works are peppered with exquisite Old Masters, bold conceptual works juxtaposed with delicate gold reliquaries. There is a sense of struggle in the contemporary art, an unease with the notion of the numinous and – despite some superb works including Rebecca Horn’s flapping, falling suitcase, a wall of Andy Warhol multicoloured crosses and Eduardo Chillida’s powerful graphic works – there is much here that is mediocre, including Richard Serra’s dim corten steel stile sitting mute in its little courtyard. I was surprised not to see more evidence of minimalism, which seems to me a very contemporary response to existential angst and questions of the sublime. Zumthor seems to have had less trouble reconciling the secular and the sacred in his architecture – purely by not dwelling on the obvious he has created a subtle, flexible building of exquisite taste and restraint.

The problem with being Zumthor, though, is that he is avidly copied. This has been a building with a long gestation period. In that time his rich but restrained modernism has become a language that has been ripped off by top-end spas and boutique hotels across the world. Walking into Kolumba’s cosy reading room, encased in walls of beautifully book-matched, heavily-figured veneers, with leather door handles and light shades, it feels ever so slightly like the most tasteful first class lounge in the world. The diaphanous, super-fine mesh curtains that occasionally enliven the plate glass windows reinforce this hotel chic, as do the otherwise beautiful bookshelves in the lobby, the smooth polished grey of the floors and walls and the black stone of the bathrooms. There is an ethereality about this building, but it is somehow ompromised by a kind of language of modernist luxury. I know this is a debate that stretches back to Loos and Mies, whose love of marble, leather and luxurious veneers informed their versions of modernism, in which surface superseded decoration – yet there is still something slightly disconcerting. Perhaps we are all too used to the nakedness of concrete and ply as the ultimate in architectural luxury, the luxury to express the utilitarian.

The other thing that struck me slightly – and I am almost loath to raise this as I realise its painful sensitivity – is the faint hint of a fascist aesthetic. The long grey bricks, the stripped-down, generously spaced lettering of the signage and the high side-lighting reminded me of Josef Hoffmann’s notoriously compromised 1937 Austrian pavilion in Venice, while the moves around the ruins somehow put me in mind of Mussolini’s obsessive exposing of Roman ruins, and even of Giuseppe Terragni’s intense narrative journeys. There is, I am sure, nowhere any intention of this most problematic of references and, in the building’s determined asymmetry and lack of overbearing monumentality, it remains resolutely contemporary. Nevertheless there is a slight coldness that spreads out from the damp darkness of the ruins to the greyness of the walls. This is an exquisite building but not a joyful one. Emotion is left firmly to the art. Perhaps surprisingly, this commission, which seemed the perfect vehicle for Zumthor, has resulted in a building that, while beautiful, is lacking a little in soul.

The day after I saw the building the agency wires erupted with the comments of Cologne’s archbishop, Cardinal Meisner, a close friend of the Pope. Referring to the museum’s inauguration, he commented on an emergent “Entartete Kunst”. This phrase, usually translated as “Degenerate Art”, was coined by the Nazis in disparagement of the (mostly expressionist) art that was anathema to their tastes. This was no slip of the tongue: the speech was scripted. It is barely believable that he should evoke such a spectre, but it does demonstrate the teeth-scraping jangling of the nerves that can arise when art, religion and history bite together. Modernism, it seems, remains a touchy subject.

images Roland Halbe

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