Mies van der Rohe
The Neue Nationalgalerie is the last major construction completed by the luminary of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe. The architect’s long-term preoccupation with creating fluid, open spaces culminated in the design of the glazed upper pavilion of the gallery. The architect died shortly after the building’s inauguration. With its steel roof and gracefully austere architectural vernacular, the Neue Nationalgalerie not only stands as an icon of modernism, but as testament to a visionary architect of the 20th century. When it was built, the museum stood on the edge of what was then West Berlin. It was constructed as one of the vital cornerstones of the Kulturforum, as planned by another great architect of the postwar period, Hans Scharoun. Thanks to the reunification of Germany and of Berlin, and the ensuing hive of construction activity at Potsdamer Platz, the Neue Nationalgalerie no longer stands in an abandoned wasteland but in the busy heart of the city.
The history of the Neue Nationalgalerie is inextricably linked to the political division of Germany and the city of Berlin that resulted as a consequence of the Second World War. The Nationalgalerie’s collection, originally on display on the Museumsinsel Berlin and later, in the 1920s, also in the Kronprinzen-Palais on Unter den Linden, was initially managed by the Greater Berlin Authority in the years immediately following the war. The founding in 1949 of two German states, with two diametrically opposed political systems and differing ideologies concerning art and its role in society, marked the end of a unified collection. The West Berlin authorities took strides to rebuild the collection by setting up a ‘Gallery of the 20th Century’. Further to this, parts of the Nationalgalerie’s original collection of 19th-century art were found in West Germany after being taken from Berlin in the chaos during and immediately following the war. In 1962 Mies van der Rohe was commissioned to design a new museum building to house both this collection of 19th century art and the ‘Gallery of the 20th Century’. In September 1965, the architect came to Berlin for the laying of the foundation stone. Two years later he also personally attended the most spectacular construction stage: the hydraulic raising into place of the gigantic steel roof. The building was opened on 15 September 1968 and bore the name Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery). Its name signalled the departure from the old and the start of a new chapter in the cultural rebirth of West Berlin.
The building’s architectural structure has remained virtually unchanged ever since. The urban setting in which it stands, however, has undergone radical changes: the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) emerged at almost the same time as the Neue Nationalgalerie, on the opposite side of Potsdamer Strasse, and was followed by the Kammermusiksaal (or ‘chamber music hall’) erected next to the Philharmonie, which by this point was already standing. These buildings were joined over time by a cluster of museums in the form of the Kulturforum, and, after German reunification, by the urban redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz.