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Old September 23rd, 2007, 07:46 AM   #1
hkskyline
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Cologne - Taking Christian Art Seriously

Things ancient and modern
Even in Cologne, a city of brilliantly reconstructed churches, Peter Zumthor's new Kolumba Museum impresses

22 September 2007
Financial Times

They know what to do with ruined churches in Cologne. They've had plenty of practice: 90 per cent of the fabric of the city was destroyed in bombing during the second world war and all the city's 12 remarkable Romanesque churches sustained severe damage, although the blackened twin spires of the cathedral, historic Europe's most astonishing skyscraper, escaped the worst.

Most of the churches, along with much of the Altstadt, the city's old town, were repaired and rebuilt, but one was left conspicuously ruined. St Kolumba, a church that incorporated fragments from every one of Cologne's bursts of sacral building, was left flattened as a memorial to the city's destruction, with only a tiny chapel dedicated to the Madonna of the Ruins inserted into the walls as a reminder of the church's former role.

The diminutive chapel, designed by Gottfried Bohm (who would go on to create a brilliant new layer of ecclesiastical expression in the city), was one of the first spaces for worship to emerge from the rubble and the site has remained a focus for reflection on the nature of loss, war, religion and history.

Now, more than 60 years later, a new stratum has been laid down with the long-awaited Kolumba Museum of the Archbishopric of Cologne, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

Cologne takes Christian art seriously: it spawned the most influential bout of church-building in the 20th century, with brilliant buildings that spanned the range of modernism from expressionism to minimalism, while Gerhard Richter has recently completed an impressive stained glass window in the cathedral. That modern art and the church remains a live, controversial issue in Germany was well illustrated by a speech given by Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, at the museum's inauguration. Meisner, a close friend of the Pope, astonishingly used the phrase "entartete Kunst" in reference to some of the contemporary works in the Kolumba Museum. Usually translated as "degenerate art", the term was coined by the Nazis in contempt, particularly of expressionism. The cardinal intended to criticise the divorce of art from religion but his comment caused outrage.

The new museum's architect, Peter Zumthor, is an extraordinary figure. Working from his home in the Graubunden region, high in the Alps, he is arguably the most respected architect in the world, but one who has resolutely refused to take part in the star system. He has never sought big commissions and chooses only the jobs he wants. The Kolumba Museum was won in competition and its blend of historical density and stratification,its symbolic importance and its urban presence, would seem perfectly to suit an architect who is able to squeeze more meaning from a simple doorthan most others can find in an urban masterplan.

And it is a stunning work. While other architects are still intent on attention-seeking shapes and eccentric whimsy, Zumthor has employed his usual deceptive simplicity and a (slightly oxymoronic) subtle monumentalism. Despite its scale and the cliffs of exquisite long, flat bricks that give the impression of an almost Roman wall, this is a building that sits lightly on its nuanced site. The structure is elevated on slender columns that puncture the ground and pick their way through the ruined walls of the church. The ruins are built into the structure, contained within irregularly perforated brick walls that allow light to dapple the old stones, like sunbeams filtering through the filigree masonry of Cologne cathedral's spires. The perforated walls also lend a lacy delicacy to the austere street facades. A timber walkway drifts above the walls, disembodied and yet engaged with the site's history.

Zumthor did something similar near his home in Chur. There he contained the town's Roman ruins in an elegant semi-industrial shed, to be traversed by snaking footbridges. In Cologne it has been done with more self-conscious gravitas but perhaps less delicacy. In the middle of the ruins stands the Madonna of the Ruins Chapel, itself a blend of historic fabric and resolutely modern architectural expression which has been left to function independently as a place of worship.

The museum is entered via a foyer that leads on to a courtyard. There is no attempt to make this entrance space overly theatrical as (pace Tate Modern and MoMA) has become the norm. The ascent to the galleries is by means of a long, slightly oppressive stair, almost entirely devoid of detail. The first floor galleries are a little dingy, but it is here that the oldest and most delicate pieces in the collection are to be found, shielded from the light.

The next level, though, is another story. Here the city beyond is revealed through windows that drift just beyond the floors and ceilings, fissures inthe fabric of the walls. The spaces are powerfully connected to the city,particularly to those omnipresent blackened twin spires.

Other spaces appear almost as shafts, illuminated by a single opening high on the wall. The effect is dramatically numinous; the spirit rises up with the eyes to the beams of light. The walls, floors and ceilings encase the galleries in a smooth grey neutrality. Where the architect wants to emphasise something - a door, a reading room, a display case - he employs the most exquisite book-matched and highly figured veneers. They provide the counterpoint to the otherwise mute surfaces, while an assortment of curtains, in materials ranging from heavy leather to diaphanous fabrics and meshes, bring in the faintest hint of a hue and a sophisticated modulation of light.

The collections are very fine and extraordinarily diverse. From medieval reliquaries to powerful conceptual pieces, each has been found a home. Much of the delight of this museum derives from the curiousness of thejuxtapositions blended with their common intent of meaningfully expressing the invisible. A room of Eduardo Chillida works is very fine, a wall of Warhol crosses is surprisingly powerful, as is a haunting work by Rebecca Horn, of a falling, flapping suitcase. A rustyRichard Serra construction works as well as it could in the courtyard but it is left to a few exquisite medieval works, including Stefan Lochner's sublime "Madonna with the Violet" and an Ecce Homo relief, to stop you in your tracks.

Exerting a powerful presence in the city, exposing its smashed historic underbelly and allowing this fine collection to be shown, the Kolumba Museum is a potent reaffirmation of Cologne's status as Germany's episcopal seat. It is a building of real dignity and permanence by perhaps the finest architect in the world. It manages both a civic grandeur and generosity and a humility in the face of history, tragedy and the need to accommodate but not overwhelm the art it displays. Serious, sublime and subtle, it is everything most contemporary museums are not, a building that refuses facile gestures and the architecture of the icon. The icons here are left firmly attached to the walls.
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Old September 23rd, 2007, 04:49 PM   #2
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Well, sounds quite interesting. Any impressions on that one?
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