Keywords Change this

Modernism, Rooftop, Structure, Glass And Steel

Project timeline

1962 – 1968



Location Change this

Potsdamer Strasse 50
10785 Berlin

Current state


Also known as Change this

Neue Nationalgalerie

Architect Change this

Gross floor area Change this



Article last edited by Bostjan on
March 29th, 2019

New National Gallery Change this

View from Potsdamer Strasse, 1968

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Description Change this

The New National Gallery at the Kulturforum is a museum for modern art in Berlin, with its main focus on the early 20th century. The collection features a number of unique highlights of modern 20th century art. Particularly well represented are Cubism, Expressionism, the Bauhaus and Surrealism. Nearly all of the museum's display space is located underground. The museum building and its sculpture gardens were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1968.

Dimensions and Materials

The plan of the Neue Nationalgalerie is divided into two distinct stories. The upper story serves as an entrance hall as well as the primary special exhibit gallery, totaling 2,683 m2 of space. It is elevated from street level and only accessible by three flights of steps. Though it only comprises a small portion of the total gallery space, the exhibition pavilion stands boldly as the building’s primary architectural expression.

Eight cruciform columns, two on each length placed so as to avoid corners, support a square pre-stressed steel roof plate 1.8 meters thick and painted black. An eighteen-meter cantilever allows for ample space between the gallery’s glazed façade and eight supporting columns. Mies’ office studied this cantilever extensively in various scaled models in order to ensure its structural stability as well as the seeming flatness of the roof plate. The floor-to-ceiling height reaches 8.4 meters, and the space is laid out on a 3.6-meter square dimensional grid. Black anodized aluminum “egg crates” fit within the grid house lighting fixtures, with air ducts suspended above.

The lower story serves primarily as housing for the gallery’s permanent collection, though it also includes a library, offices, and a shop and café, and totals about 10,000 m2 of space. It is three quarters below ground so as to allow for safe storage of the artwork, its sole glazed façade looking out on the museum’s sloping sculpture garden and providing ample indirect interior lighting.

Nevertheless, the lobby contains the most dramatic interior design in the museum: the walls of the museum are almost entirely glass, interrupted only with slim metal structural supports, and the white natural light transmitted through these walls reflects off the dark, highly polished floor. The simplicity and rigorously pure geometry of the space's rectangular forms makes the design seem tranquil, rather than obtrusive. This careful balance is typical of Mies van der Rohe's mature style.

The Modern Temple

Much of Mies’ syntactical development throughout the three building progression leading up to the Neue Nationalgalerie was prefigured in an earlier project for a Museum for a Small City. This project was published in a special May 1943 edition of Architectural Forum. In his publication, Mies describes a seemingly floating roof plane, suspended above a single clear-span space punctuated by equidistant columns. This project is now seen as a significant move on Mies’ part toward the alleviation of interior space by both defining and minimizing structural enclosure, thus joining exterior and interior space in a meaningful way. The structure itself, a composite of little more than ground plane, support and roof, thus becomes the building. The aesthetic importance of the clear-span was directly related to Mies’ conception of museum space in general, a “defining, rather than confining space.” The completely open nature of the plan also serves to eliminate the barrier between art and community, simultaneously breaking down the reverence enacted by severely partitioned spaces and inviting interaction between viewer and art. The overall aesthetic affect is thus one of vitalizing liberation. This infinitely transformative capability and universality is also seen in Mies’ buildings from the intervening years, namely the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and Crown Hall of the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Various commentators have recognized the structure’s ties to classical building, seeing it as a modern temple whose monumental simplicity evinces the immense skill behind its design and conception.


The ability of clearly articulated external structures to alleviate façades and create large-scale universal spaces required certain boldness on the part of the client. The ineffable expression of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s entrance pavilion had certain logistical downsides. Its smooth granite flooring reflects the warm natural light that floods the space, creating hazy shadow and making curatorial efforts notoriously complicated. The singular expression of the pavilion space also relegated the lower story to a secondary position, presenting further difficulties for the display of artwork involving a lack of natural lighting and relatively pedestrian layout of viewing space. When asked later to renovate and expand the building’s lower story, Mies refused, as to do so would destroy the perfect proportions of the temple above. He originally conceived of the entrance pavilion as a place for very large works, allowing for unencumbered visual interaction and for use of the piece as space element in itself. An early collage included in the May 1943 Architectural Forum article about Museum for a Small City includes Picasso’s Guernica, along with other large, plane-like paintings. Yet smaller works had to be shown on moveable freestanding walls or hanging partitions, making a curator’s ability to effectively differentiate spaces difficult.

The Renovation

The Neue Nationalgalerie has had no thorough modernization since its inauguration. In 2012 it was announced that British architect David Chipperfield will oversee a major renovation of the building. In a non-competitive selection process common for public contracts in Germany, his firm was chosen for the contract out of 24 architectural firms based on a two-stage negotiation process. The museum requires new security and fire technology and the shop and cafe will be renovated. The €101 million renovation project started in 2015 and is expected to last three years, during which time the museum will be closed. Original building elements, such as handrails and shelves, will be removed, restored and reinstalled in their previous locations. Meanwhile, the structural framework of the roof, which rests on eight steel beams, and the glass facade will be restored.

Permanent Art Installations

The Neue Nationalgalerie's ceiling, constructed as a grid of black-painted steel beams, has been used as an exhibit surface in itself for Installation of long lines of LCD displays by artist Jenny Holzer in 2001, which continuously scrolled abstract patterns down their length. The terrace provides a particularly prominent space for large-scale pieces of sculpture from the 20th century. Permanently installed sculptures include Gudari (1957) by Eduardo Chillida, Polis (1968) by Joannis Avramidis, the kinetic metal sculpture Vier Vierecke im Geviert (1969) by George Rickey, Three Way Piece No.2: The Archer (1964–65) by Henry Moore, Têtes et Queue (1965) by Alexander Calder, and Berlin Block Charlie Chaplin (1978) by Richard Serra. In 2003, with the permission of the Barnett Newman Foundation, a fourth edition of the sculpture Broken Obelisk (1963) by Barnett Newman was cast and temporarily installed in front of the museum. In 2011, Thomas Schütte's work Vater Staat (2010) was donated by Nicolas Berggruen and installed on the terrace. Many other pieces of sculpture - by artists from Auguste Renoir to Ulrich Rückriem - are on permanent display in the museum's garden.



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