As in the Des Moines Art Center Addition, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, the West Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and at the Louvre, Pei designed this building to physically unite the old with the new, here with a particularly strong symbolic resonance in the heart of recently reunified Germany. The German Historical Museum was established in 1987 on the 750th anniversary of Berlin’s founding. After a long process of finding a site and staging an architectural competition, circumstances changed radically with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent determination that the museum’s needs were better met by the 18th century Zeughaus, the oldest secular building on Berlin’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard. Pei accepted the commission from Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but only after months of intensive study and several visits to Berlin, learning German history, exploring the city, and visiting nearby buildings by the great Prussian architect and city planner Karl Friedrich Schinkel (the classical legacy of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Pei’s Bauhaus teachers at Harvard). He spent time carefully analyzing the site, which was small and difficult, hidden from view on a narrow alley – but optimally located near the Museum Island cultural district.
The Zeughaus (Old Arsenal) houses permanent displays of German history; a new building was needed for temporary exhibitions. Viability required the two buildings to be connected without, however, obstructing the view corridors in this historic part of the city. In solution, Pei carved a link beneath the alley separating the two buildings and, above ground, transformed the alley into a vital pedestrian corridor running straight through the integrated museum as a gateway to Museum Island. A critical part of the project was the transformation of an open courtyard in the center of the Zeughaus, previously used for displaying canons, to create a skylit year-round winter garden and cafe where the public can attend lectures, musical concerts and other special events after hours when the rest of the museum is closed.
Visitors enter the museum through the Zeughaus and descend on escalator to the underground link into the new building. Temporary exhibition spaces are located on all four floors, in mostly windowless galleries behind honey-colored sandstone walls. A major design consideration was how to connect the different levels. Visitors are enticed to explore in an almost Piranesian layering of space, constantly changing perspectives as they rise, first on escalators, then on monumental stairs, and finally on a glazed spiral stair that offers indoor and outdoor views in all directions as it rotates up to the top floor. A large circular wall cut, similar to those in the Bank of China Head Office Building, Miho Museum, and in the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre, dramatizes movement and weaves a multi-cultural connection with traditional moon gates in Pei’s native China.
Public spaces in the new building (variously known as the Schauhaus or Pei-Bau) are defined by a curved glass facade that puts interior activities on display while looking out to neighboring neoclassical buildings, and offering modern perspectives on the past with no clash in style. Hidden behind the heavy stone mass of the Zeughaus, only the glazed spiral stair peeks out at the street corner. Illuminated at night, it is a beckoning urban lantern seen some 400 feet away from Unter den Linden.
I.M. Pei, Design Principal; Christiane Flasche
I.M. Pei, Architect