Designed by Hans Hollein; completed 1982
Since the 1990s, it has not been uncommon for architects and their clients to break with the two previously prevailing alternatives—temple or warehouse—for art museums, but such a typological rupture had been dramatically anticipated two decades earlier, by Hans Hollein in the Museum Abteiberg, a unique building tailored to an unusual site and a distinctive collection. The Pritzker Prize laureate of 1985, who was born in Vienna in 1934 and is an artist, teacher, and creator of furniture, interiors, and exhibitions, has at Mönchengladbach assembled a virtual primer of museum design, one that has brought a heretofore unknown visceral excitement to the vocation of museum going. In contrast to later attempts in this genre, however, Hollein’s achievement has contributed to an intensified appreciation of the museum’s contents rather than making a personal statement at their expense.
Although Hollein has learned from the institutional buildings of Louis I.Kahn and Alvar Aalto, he listens to his own music, which—to pursue the metaphor—includes concerti from the 18th, symphonies from the 19th, and popular songs from the 20th centuries. His eclecticism served him well in this complex commission, made more difficult by the need for the museum to serve urban as well as aesthetic ends. Hollein has linked Mönchengladbach’s town center on the heights with the medieval Ettal Abbey (today the city hall) on the slopes below, assembling a multi-tiered museum from a series of discrete elements of different sizes and shapes that provide a series of delightfully varied indoor and outdoor rooms. Distributing the individual volumes in space rather than containing them within a monolithic whole allowed him to maintain the picturesque scale of the town; at the subterranean level, the disparate sections are united.
Although designing a museum is always challenging, it is perhaps less onerous when, in contrast to those encyclopedic institutions that are in continual flux, its holdings consist of a focused group of works. Kahn found such a golden opportunity in the Kimbell Museum, and Hollein has exploited the similar possibilities here, where he worked closely with the director, Jonathan Cladders, in formulating the program. They believe that today the museum itself represents a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), “a huge scenario into which the individual work is fitted…not the autonomy of the work at any price but the deliberately staged correspondence between space and work of art” (Klotz, 1985, p. 19). This especially applies to contemporary art, which frequently is deliberately produced for a museum setting. The plan that Hollein and Cladders evolved is without precedent for this building type. None of the customary tropes, whether conventional or modern—vaulted galleries arranged symmetrically, the universal space, the proverbial white cube—are present. Instead, the combination of small, contained cabinets and larger rooms perfectly accommodates a collection that, although including some historical pieces, is mainly focused on the post-World War II period and, although international, is richly endowed with work by American artists of such competing movements as Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Pop. Many works are in the form of installations without customary boundaries or frames and do not necessarily require natural light.
From the town, one enters the museum precinct via an elevated walkway that leads to a stone-faced platform whereon is set a tower containing administrative offices; a library; workshops and storage; a cubic, top-lighted undivided volume for temporary displays; the shedroofed, zinc-clad “clover-leaf” pavilion for the permanent collection; and the entrance temple. The platform also covers museum spaces excavated into the hill, and from it, one can descend gradually to curving terraces, furnished with sculpture, that border the gardens of the former abbey; beneath a portion of the terraces are additional exhibition areas.
Hollein has rejected the prescribed routes encountered in traditional museums for mysterious, polymorphous paths that compel the viewer to wander on her own and discover unexpected places, then to turn back on them or chance on new chambers. Because chronology is not the issue it would be for a historically based collection, the ad hoc character is stimulating rather than frustrating. Upstairs and downstairs, under- and above-ground, the variously configured galleries illuminated by diverse means—daylight through windows and skylights and artificial light via incandescent, neon, and fluorescent fixtures—permit individual works to be perceived in the setting most sympathetic to their makers’ intentions. The most organized part of the display areas comprises what Hollein calls the “cloverleaf”—a group of seven “kissing squares,” to use Kahn’s formulation, that are traversed at the corners. Set under saw-toothed skylights, these rooms are ideal for big pieces by such artists as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, and Roy Lichtenstein. There are also curved rooms, some with undulating walls that are positively Baroque in character; double-height spaces and circular steps add further drama. Hollein’s rejection of the convention of amorphous flexible areas, dominant since the 1940s, in favor of a rich variety of specific and distinctive spaces, would in the 1990s become a popular solution for art museums—yet another example of the way the Museum Abteiberg adumbrates many later schemes for this type of institution.
Also prescient is Hollein’s interjection of playfulness and irony into the reverence that typically pervades museum design. Although marble clads some of the surfaces, it is combined with less elevated masonry materials like brick and sandstone. Reflective as well as transparent glass appears; zinc is placed beside chromium and steel. One side of the temple-like pavilion that forms the main entrance sports graffiti in red paint, matching the color of some of the railings. Exterior light fixtures have an industrial character in contrast to the lush surrounding landscape and the textured brick walls and paths. The visitor, constantly encountering the unpredictable, is sensitized to the daring originality of the art displayed.
It is instructive to compare Museum Abteiberg with another German museum from the same period that similarly had a profound effect on subsequent museum design—James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie (1977–84) at Stuttgart. Both are set on irregular terrain and require urbanistic interventions, but Stirling’s solution revives and updates the 19th-century museum paradigm, whereas Hollein has jettisoned all previous solutions. Both make reference to industrial as well as classical buildings and use the technique of compositional collage, yet their differences illuminate the manifold possibilities inherent in the museum program.