Construction on the Neue Nationalgalerie finished in 1968. It was the last of Mies's major constructions and a highpoint (one of many) in his career. The museum's glass pavilion was contained within an external steel structure (an evolution of two earlier, unrealised designs:the headquarters of Bacardi Rum Company in Santiago de Cuba and the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt) and represented one of the clearest examples of many of the themes that Mies worked with throughout his career: modern steel and glass construction; flexible interior spaces; purity of line and form.
Next year, 50 years after construction began on the museum, David Chipperfield Architects will began a renovation of the building. The studio's Berlin office will be charged with updating and restoring infrastructure and systems in the museum that have by now outlived their expected lifespan. "The objective is to be as invisible as possible," says studio partner Alexander Schwarz. "We want to hand over this almost immaculate piece of classical postwar modernity to the next generation, which is quite astonishing in terms of how authentic it is. It hasn’t got different layers of history as is more normal in monuments, where you find restorations have kept the image, but replaced the material. It's never been restored and is all entirely original material. The aim is to spend quite an amount of money with the aim of delivering the same building."
In anticipation of this project – a large-scale, high-cost multi-year plan to keep things exactly the same – Chipperfield's studio have done something ingenious with the space. They have created an installation titled Sticks and Stones, for which the basic idea is simple. Mies's hall was celebrated for its openness and scale; a glazed expanse that the absence of interior columns means that the roof seems to hover above. The entire drama and success of the pavilion is that is has no interior columns. So Chipperfield has filled the space with 144 columns.
"The idea at first was to do an exhibition on columns to confront Mies’s column-free, ultimate modern space," says Schwarz, who together with Chipperfield led the project. "Then we somehow realised that if you do an intervention in the space you have to really engage with the architecture and maybe just showing models of columns would create a problem. So we proposed whether it could be something that doesn’t represent anything, but is physically as present as the architecture itself. We settled on tree trunks."
Each of the columns is the trunk of a spruce tree, sourced from a private forest on the Baltic Sea in the northern German state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The trees are exactly 100 years old (too old to be used for conventional forestry purposes; the time at which they should have been felled for timber came at the time that the Berlin Wall fell) and Chipperfield has had them all arranged according to a grid proscribed by that of the ceiling. The height of the roof is 8.4m. The trees measure 8m and on small marble bases and connect to the roof by metal links. They look like columns, but they're entirely functionless; 40cm too short to bear a load.
"I think these trees help people realise how enormous the space is, as you have a natural idea of how big those tree trunks are and you suddenly feel what it means to have such a clear span," says Schwarz. "You see the space in a different way and you get another understanding of its dimensions, for instance the grid of the trees opens up the diagonal views. You can’t escape the physicality of Mies’s ultimate, beautiful, modern, sophisticated architecture and you can't escape the physicality of the tree trunks either. It looks a little bit as if for the first time in 50 years life the load doesn’t go through the outside columns, but through the tree trunks."
The trees are faintly suggestive of the kind of props likely to be used to support the roof during renovation work on the museum, yet Schwarz is careful to state that there is no direct connection between the installation and subsequent construction work: "It's a comment on building process if you want to read it like that, but there’s not a too direct link between the two."
Instead, Sticks and Stones is a stand-alone installation. What is satisfying about it is the manner in which it both complements and creates tension with Mies's architecture. The trees are geometrically pure in a fashion that Mies might appreciate and arranged according to the grid of the hall in such a way as to make them seem a natural part of the architecture. Yet much still seems off, making for a thrillingly subversive presence. These are columns that fill the column-less hall; an organic presence in a temple to steel and glass. Before a reconstruction process that will lead the Neue Nationalgalerie back to where it has always been, Chipperfield has utterly transformed it.