It is a hot May afternoon and David Chipperfield is in reflective mood. “At the beginning I was not quite sure where it was going to lead to,” he explains.

We are sitting at a long table in the central office of his London studio in a mews a short walk east of Camden Town. It’s a tranquil setting for Britain’s foremost architect as we discuss his recently completed Neues Museum refurbishment in Berlin, which his practice recently completed with collaborator, conservation architect Julian Harrap. It’s a project that carries the terrific burden of Berlin’s traumatic past and succeeds. “I am not an architect who tries to impose an architectural vision onto something,” says Chipperfield, who is both assured and modest. “This has allowed us to go deep into the project and bring to it an attitude towards history that maybe for a Berliner or a German would be much more difficult to do.”

2009 has been a pivotal year for David Chipperfield so far. In May, his second museum of the year reopened – The Anchorage Museum in Alaska. That same month saw the opening of the Barcelona City of Justice, a 240,000m² government complex consisting of nine towers and an interlinking atrium building.

The Neues Museum project

“Chipperfield has refurbished the Neues Museum but also retained the scars of war and damage from decay.”

Completed in March 2009, over a decade after the Stirling Prize-winner was commissioned to masterplan the area, the Neues Museum in Berlin sits at the heart of the Museum Island development, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the most prestigious European museum project in a generation. “The Neues Museum has finally awoken from its coma,” Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said on its completion.

The museum remains a Prussian ruin but one where a profoundly humane and philosophical spirit has been recovered through a quite exceptional restoration. The 20,500m² museum will house Egyptian antiquities when it opens to the public in October, as it did before the war.

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Chipperfield’s Berlin office was also commissioned to restore other parts of the Museum Island. A new building, the James Simon Gallery, is to be built between the Neues Museum and the River Spree, recreating the urban situation of the site pre-1938.

The €233m reconstruction of the last major ruin on Museum Island has not been without controversy. Chipperfield has refurbished the museum but also retained the scars of war and damage from decay. An impressive, almost ethereally white modern stairway rises above exposed bricks riddled with bullet holes from the battles that raged throughout Berlin in the final weeks of The Third Reich. Original columns have been left marked by fire damage and exquisitely detailed but kitsch neo-classical mosaics and mock-Egyptian murals appear to flake away on walls and ceilings. Such details offer a tantalising glimpse of how Chipperfield decided what to lose and what to keep.

Public debate slowed the Neues Museum project. “Certain lobbies that exist in Berlin and trade with a nostalgic purpose made a public attack on the project and managed to keep this debate in the press for a long time,” explains Chipperfield. The Berlin Historical Society argued that he should have created a faithful restoration of Friedrich August Stüler’s design without the modern reinterpretation.

“Chipperfield’s original plan called for a restoration of the building to be ‘as complete and authentic as possible’.”

Chipperfield is not bitter. He thrives in an atmosphere of debate and contrasts the charged atmosphere in Berlin over the project with the almost zero interest that public buildings arouse in the United Kingdom. “It did mean that the press interest built up to an incredible level,” explains Chipperfield. When the building was completed it was open to the public for three days, 35,000 people came. “It became the people’s project and people adored it.”

Berlin’s attitude to architecture has always been different. From the rebuilding of the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz to the recent demolition of the DDR’s Palast de Republik, buildings have divided the city.

Politics and architecture are a volatile mix in Berlin. “All the politicians stayed away from our project,” explains Chipperfield.

Originally completed in 1849, the buildings on Museum Island sit between the river Spree and the Kupfergraben Canal, at the centre of East Berlin. It was completed in 1853 to be a new museum for Berlin’s collection of Egyptian art and other antiquities. It was a grand, ostentatious monument to Prussian pomp complete with a fake Pompeian villa and an imitation Greek temple.

Extensively damaged during the Second World War, when over 70% of the museum buildings were destroyed, the area spent much of the 20th century as a ghostly, derelict shell. It was only after German reunification that the political will was found to approach the mammoth restoration project.

The realisation

“We had to respond to the building,” says Chipperfield of the six-year restoration. The project was part conservation, part reconstruction, with classical touches. The result looks effortless but the design process was painstaking. There was no unifying design concept applied by Chipperfield. “It’s a philosophical concept,” he says. “The museum had to be held together by that so we had to articulate very clearly our approach to it philosophically and then technically.”

“The Museum Island development has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

The main focus of the project was to reawaken and complete the original space. It encompassed the restoration of what remained after the destruction from World War II. Chipperfield’s original plan called for a restoration of the building to be ‘as complete and authentic as possible’. In addition he proposed a fully glazed volume that would act as the visitor reception area for the Museum Island complex, linked by an underground set of pathways. The project evolved into something much more intricate. “We dealt with the history of a ruin and have been able to also create a new architectural piece that both has its own authority yet is sympathetic to its condition,” he explains.

The Neues Museum’s north-west wing and a south-east tower were obliterated. Chipperfield reinstated what was once there but devoid of all decoration and respecting the original volume and window proportions. Inside, the tower is now an elemental square-planned room. Exposed brick walls effortlessly form into the dome. This is where the museum’s greatest art work will be held, the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. In contrast, the new north-west wing has three long galleries, each lined with gargantuan precast concrete panels.

Chipperfield makes his most pronounced mediation in the lobby where visitors are confronted with a stairway that is immaculately finished in concrete. The same material for the stair has been used throughout the building in places where there is substantial material loss. It is employed to striking effect in one of the museum’s two internal courtyards, where the original Egyptian themed setting has been destroyed. Chipperfield created a subtle series of concrete posts and lintels that support a gallery at first floor level and a glazed roof two floors above it.

The walls were repaired and there is now a new roof made up of dark stained oak trusses that unifies the past with the present. It is not a dramatic intervention but a seamless one. Further interventions in the museum include new solid glass panels, slim concrete columns, bronze sheets and structural roof beams made of glass. Mock Pompeian rooms have been joined by contemporary ones, such as on the top floor where the main structure is of exposed cast iron.

“It was only after German reunification that the political will was found to approach the mammoth restoration project.”

Chipperfield retained what fragments he could without embarking on an attempt to fix the damage. Instead fragments were composed to fit their context. Where frescoes had been lost Chipperfield chose not to reinstate the stucco, and exposed bricks have been colour-washed to lighten the contrast with the adjoining paintwork. The museum’s decay has been transformed from a destructive force into a creative one.

The architect is now creating a new entrance facility for the complex on land west of the museum, due to be completed in 2013. “In many ways when that building works then we have really cracked it,” says Chipperfield. “I think it will wrap Neues Museum up in a bigger picture.”

Chipperfield has a high profile in Germany, with a very impressive portfolio of recent German projects including the austere Am Kupfergraben 10 gallery across the river from the Neues Museum to the Stirling Prize-winning Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar.

The architect’s relative absence from the British architectural landscape remains baffling. Elsewhere, China (Liangzhu Culture Museum in Hangzhou) Spain (Americas Cup Building, Valencia), and even the American Midwest (Des Moines Public Library, Iowa ), have been fertile lands for Chipperfield but it is Germany that has provided an almost spiritual setting for his best work. “I think our work is appreciated in Germany because it is somehow dealing with language and tradition and taking a position that maybe a lot of Germans cannot take,” believes Chipperfield, “I have become an insider in Berlin.”