Kolumba Art Museum
Museum visitors enter a white, brightly lit reception area. Passing through a leather curtain, they plunge into the shifting darkness of a vast ground-floor space. This tall room encloses Böhm's chapel and the older ruins. The gray brick of the massive building complements the basalt, tuffs, and brick of the ruins, which lie undisturbed below a vibrant red elevated walkway that zigzags above them.
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Light and sound penetrate the perforated brick walls. The street noise reinforces an awareness of the exterior, and a recording called Pigeon Soundings by Bill Fontana fills the space with the haunting stirrings and cooings of pigeons that once nested and played among the ancient walls.
The mottled light shifts and plays across the ruins, creating a varied atmosphere throughout the day and the seasons. The openings in the walls also allow air to enter, maintaining ambient air temperature and humidity to preserve the artifacts.
Above this dramatic yet peaceful space, the museum's second and third floors house 16 art exhibition rooms, with views of the nearby Cologne Cathedral. The gallery rooms are sparsely filled and lack labels for the artwork; the museum management decided to reduce visual distractions for visitors, offering a leaflet in lieu of interpretive placards.
Fitting with the museum's interweaving of time and space achieved through design, the art housed in the gallery ranges from religious pieces of Late Antiquity to contemporary art. Contributing to the complexity, the gallery juxtaposes works as diverse as crucifixes, Andy Warhol prints, and Rebecca Horn's moving sculpture Berlin Earthbound, in which the suitcase of a Jewish woman rises into the air on a pole, beating its two halves like wings until it reaches the ceiling, then slides back to the floor to start over.
A secluded garden in the courtyard offers a quiet space in the urban heart, providing visitors a place to pause in contemplation and reflection. There, Richard Serra's The Drowned and the Saved was installed outside over bones unearthed during the excavations.
Worth the Wait
The new Kolumba Art Museum has drawn more visitors than expected since opening in September 2007. This success was a long ten years in the making.
"The building grew out of a slow collaborative process," says Kolumba curator Dr. Ulrike Surmann, who indicated that the project had required strong nerves on the part of the clients. "Zumthor only builds prototypes and he doesn't give finished plans," she says, "so you never really know what you will get."
Surmann adds that the architect "doesn't work very fast," which Zumthor himself readily concedes. At the museum's inauguration, the architect remarked on the time it takes to build a work of high quality: "Real life requires lots of patience," he said.
The museum incorporates many customized building materials, according to Surmann. For example, the brick used for the walls resulted from the architect's search for the perfect materials for the project. Handcrafted by Petersen Tegl of Denmark, the gray bricks were fired with charcoal to imbue a warm hue. They're now trademarked by the Danish company and wear the museum's name as a tribute to the building for which they were developed.
While construction advanced on the Kolumba, his first major public project, Zumthor also worked on the Bruder Klaus field chapel on farmland outside the German village of Wachendorf, a few miles away. Like the museum, the chapel exemplifies the architect's commitment to creating sacred spaces of texture and high quality.
As Zumthor remarked at the museum opening, the reflectively conceived and designed Kolumba runs counter to the "Bilbao effect," named for the Guggenheim Bilbao. "We've become used to museums as a marketing strategy for cities where art plays a secondary role," he commented. "Authorities are interested in architects who create sensational shapes that will attract people for one or two or maybe five or seven years."
"This place is the opposite," said the Zumthor of the Kolumba. "Here, people still believe in the art as more than just a good investment. They [the Archdiocese] believe in the inner values of art, its ability to make us think and feel, its spiritual values. This project emerged from the inside out, and from the place."
"The design ideas began with the art, the collection and its substance," said Zumthor.
"It was a real experience," Zumthor said of the museum project. "I liked the German Madonnas, how they greeted me from every corner. All of the Madonnas are smiling," he added, smiling himself. "That's what I enjoy most. It looks like they're having a good time."
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Debra Moffitt writes about architecture, lifestyle, and design from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lugano, Switzerland. more from this author...