In memory of the Austrian architect Hans Hollein we republish an article of Domus n.632, 1982 in which Joseph Rykwert's critical eye visited the new museum of Mönchengladbach.
To master irony in architecture is given to very few: Hans Hollein has done it for my generation.
It was easier when he was designing interiors or devising petards to put under current platitudes, or even filling in between high rises in Manhattan. But now that he has done a whole building of his own, on an independent, detached site, though surrounded by buildings of considerable importance, his mode had to change, his whole stance as a builder was put to a test. Moreover it is a building whose destination imposes a polemical stance: a museum of twentieth century art in Mönchengladbach.
As the name of the town implies, the locality is the site of an Abbey: a thousand years ago, the Benedictines settled on the hill and built their Munster which was consecrated three hundred years after. A little higher, on the crest of the hill and not quite parallel, is the much later but still very Gothic parish church, which overlooks the old Kirchplatz, the town's main square. The two churches run roughly from East to West and set up a very strong direction which cuts into the hill. Between them is the seventeenth-century monastery and a rectory. Behind the museum site, which is directly East of the Münster and is overlooked by the apse, a number of houses run along the contours. To the East there is to be a substantial new secondary school. To add to the difficulties – or the complexity – the site slopes sharply on the edge of the Abteiberg, with a fountain and symmetrical garden at the foot, and a winding access to the town centre at the top.
One of the contextual problems which Hollein has solved with extraordinary understatement is to make the museum into a pedestrian crossroads. From the town square, you stray behind the parish-church apse and find yourself on a bridge over the Abteistrasse which lands you on a square paved with sandstone. To your right rises a square building of the same material, and in fact the joint between paving and building is cantered to make a kind of valley, so the visitor is very conscious of being in a dip. To the right is the blank wall of the administrative tower which turns its soft, undulating glazing onto the square, and beyond are the dark zinc-walled north lights over the main museum space.
The square sandstone-faced building does the same thing for the temporary exhibition space. The arresting point between the sandstone and the zinc is the square white marble belvedere which is the main entrance of the building. Its white marble frame is bisected by central chrome columns, of the same nature as the columns elsewhere in the building, though they are painted throughout the colour of the walls – white. Three golden standard lamps, and the golden lettering on the white marble complete the sober and subtle exterior. The visitor is still not fully aware of the curious inversion which the architect has operated. For that he has to go down to the lower garden and look up. He sees a rather different building. Undulating brick-retaining walls lead up to the sloping plane round the square of the temporary exhibition space; the main permanent museum faces him as a horizontally-glazed steel-clad surface, supporting a terrace, against which, rather brutally, a square tube with a square window at the centre juts out, it in fact contains the museum cafe, and the window provides a startlingly “post-card” view of the Münster apse. The jutting-out of the cafe is parallel to the sides of the seven light-wells of the permanent museum which the visitor saw on the top terrace to his left, dark and covered with zinc.
But while the grid of these spaces relates to the Abteistrasse as does the administration tower and the rather precious entrance pavilion, the temporary exhibition block relates to the Münster; the contours are mimicked and exaggerated by the undulating brick walls. The walls meet the glazing of the main museum at about 45 degree, and the glazing is parallel to the north lights, which provide the tooth-edge of the seven zinc light-wells over the main museum area; if the reader finds this description somewhat awkward to follow, he may think of that difficulty as being itself a tribute to Hollein who has managed to wield the contradictions into a volume which is experienced (at least I experienced it so) as a single building. In fact, although the entrance pavilion admits you to a stair going down, with the horizontal glazing on one side and the artificial terracing of the undulating walls on the other, you are inside a rather light building, not in an underground. The white of the walls, the white marble floors of the entry space have a certain amount to do with that. But also, because you may look down through the windows on what is definitely an urban landscape, so that you are both in the hill and in a building.
Around you is an interior of great complexity and brightness. You enter parallel to the main direction of those seven towers which correspond to the rooms of the main museum. But the plotting of the contradictory grids, the interstices of the undulating walls leave rather strange diverticules. Of these, all used as exhibition space remain white, while the meeting (as well as administration) rooms are coloured. The larger lecture room under the temporary exhibition space is all green, its walls and ceiling divided into squares to look like a kind of emblematic pergola, with an apse flanked by maroon columns, occultly directed towards the Münster; the smaller seminar room is all pompeian red ribbed with spent blue: a sly dig at recent fashion. In this brief introduction, it is impossible to enumerate the variety of spaces in the museum: from the apparently amorphous (to be articulated by screens set between the columns and running floor to ceiling) to curved, enclosed, sinuous secretive, top-lit spaces. The fetish of flexibility is exorcised by variety, and variety is obtained not by willful invention but by the deliberate confrontation of elements which have explicit internal organization, by interweaving them in various alternative manners at different levels, and by varying the ways of access and the stairways to coincide with different accents of use.
As I said, I am conscious of the difficulty of reading this kind of exegetic description, even with the help of drawings and photographs. But to convey the intricacy of the space through verbal complexity, though it may risk tedium and incomprehensibility, will also be more vivid to the reader than any number of superlatives. And yet, in the end, the image which the building conveys is a simple one. The terrace is a right-of-way but also a roof: the different elements of the building project through its plane as separate pavilions; the interior is a white, differentiated maze whose order is not too assertive to overwhelm the sometimes tenuous intention of the exhibits.