Herzog & de Meuron’s Museum der Kulturen opens after ten years.

The remodelled court with brick steps to the new entrance (ph: Michael Fontana)

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron could have had a decent architectural career without ever leaving their home town in north-west Switzerland. Basel might be small – about the size of Telford – but it is wealthy, well-connected and architecturally ambitious, and has given them the opportunity to build housing, a football stadium and medical facilities, galleries, transport depots, factories and offices. A 41-storey tower is planned for pharmaceuticals giant Roche, and a large extension to the Messe exhibition halls, awarded to HdM without competition, is under construction. Even in Basel, however, the ride is not always smooth. The new extension to the Museum der Kulturen is a relatively modest project that has taken ten years to complete thanks to opposition from conservationists, a wrangle that went all the way to the country’s highest courts.

Section showing excavated courtyard, new entrance and rooftop addition.

Melchior Berri’s neoclassical ethnological museum (1849) was extended in 1917 by Vischer & Söhne. Herzog & de Meuron was appointed in 2001 to extend and rationalise the museum again. It has made two major interventions: excavating the previously inaccessible rear courtyard creates a new entrance and connects the museum to Münsterplatz, site of the city’s cathedral; and a new jagged, green-tiled roof adds a gallery and lends the building a new identity.

This strategy – cutting away at ground level to make a new inside/outside public space and adding a rooftop box – recalls other Herzog & de Meuron museums of the same vintage. Tate Modern (1995-2000) has the ramped entrance to the basement, and at the Caixa Forum in Madrid (2001-8), the base of the existing building was cut away to make a generous entrance, while a new Corten crown signals its rebirth. Both were former power stations that could take – or demanded – robust handling. The context at Basel is more delicate, but the architects have not held back.

The museum sits in the old town, near the Rhine and next to the city’s cathedral on Münsterplatz.

The museum and courtyard prior to the recent works; the building looked like a school, suggests Herzog & de Meuron partner Christine Binswanger.

Two existing facades have been overwritten to create an instant palimpsest. Windows are filled in to give the upper storeys a heavier, more imposing feel and increase the amount of wall surface within, while new openings have been punched to form a piano nobile. The record of the work is left in careful details – new windows are recessed or proud according to what they replace and the composition of the existing facades; the concrete canopy over the entrance expresses the new structure behind, whose bolts are left exposed in the stonework.

While the changes to the facade are dramatic, it was the roof that provoked the conservationists’ ire. But as project director Christine Binswanger points out, its form and colour are sympathetic to the roofscape of the historic city, and anyway the peaks are all but invisible from outside the courtyard. The hexagonal tiles are divided into six triangles. Some are flat, some convex and some concave, so even on a dull day the roof has life and lustre. The space under the overhang is enlivened by six slowly-rotating suspended planters. They are stocked with local species and, unlike many green walls, seem to be thriving.

The tiles were made by Deutsche Steinzeug. Size was determined by cost, as was the pattern – the metal roof beneath is the waterproof layer (ph: MF)

The metal waterproof layer beneath the roof tiles.

The roof form was generated in part by the desire to make an interior that contributes to the building’s memorable image and acts as an ‘anchor space’ on the journey through it. The column-free top-floor gallery is certainly striking, but might clash with temporary exhibition designs. Otherwise, however, the lightness of the architect’s touch inside the building is in contrast to its freewheeling approach to the exterior. The existing neoclassical rooms were fundamentally good, requiring little action except restoration and the tidy integration of services. New stairs at the top and bottom of the building quote from the originals. The one major alteration is the removal of a floor to make a double-height gallery – another ‘anchor space’ that echoes a triple-height room created in the 1970s.

This combination of bold strategic moves and careful, imaginative attention to detail is evident on every step of the visitor’s progress through the new museum. CF

Two new galleries inserted by Herzog & de Meuron, one in the new roof, the other (double-height) created by removing a floor (ph: MF)

Two new galleries inserted by Herzog & de Meuron, one in the new roof, the other (double-height) created by removing a floor (ph: MF).

Restored gallery (ph: MF).

Project team
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron; partners: Christine Binswanger, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron (pictured, left to right); project architects: Martin Fröhlich, Mark Bähr, Michael Bär, Jürgen Johner, Ines Huber; design team: Piotr Fortuna, Volker Jacob, Beatus Kopp, Severin Odermatt, Nina Renner, Nicolas Venzin, Thomas Wyssen, Béla Berec, Giorgio Cadosch, Gilles le Coultre, Laura McQuary; clients: Stiftung Museum der Kulturen, Kanton Basel-Stadt.

First published in AT223, November 2011

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