Architecture and History in Germany

A Noah’s Ark for Art –The Albertinum in Dresden

The Albertinum in Dresden, which had been closed since the flooding in 2002, has reopened its doors. Now, the museum has been restored and has flood-proof depots.

The Albertinum, “Art from Romanticism to the Present” in Dresden, view from the Brühl Terrace, copyright: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo: David Brandt

Dresden, renowned as “Florence on the Elbe,” is famous for its wonderful view of the Elbe, as it was once painted by Canaletto, but also for the art treasures collected by Electors and kings of Saxony. That, in addition to the royal residence and the Zwinger palace, a further great museum for modern art, the Albertinum – named after King Albert (1828–1902) – is located on the banks of the Elbe, had been almost forgotten. But the building made headlines thanks to the disastrous flood of August 2002. The flooding of the Elbe entered the cellar vault where artworks were being stored under the assumption that they were safe there. Museum employees worked day and night to rescue the art works and first brought them to the upper floors. Afterwards, the building had to be restored and equipped with flood-proof depots.

The museum building had originally been built in 1563 as an armoury in palace style. After a comprehensive conversion of the building from 1884–87 to house the main state archive and the sculpture collection, the cellar vault and the ground floor, including the 75-metre long South Hall with its Tuscan columns, and two rustic gates were all that remained of the original building. During World War II, the building, now ornamented in monumental Italian High Renaissance style, was severely damaged and in part destroyed by fire. After its reconstruction in the 1950’s, it housed the now homeless collections of the Gallery of Modern Masters, with art of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Green Vault with its famous treasury and numismatic collection. The collection of plaster casts and the depot collections were stored in the cellar – a grave mistake, as is now known.

An “invisible house”

Cross-section perspective of the Albertinum, 1 inner courtyard, 2 sculpture hall, 3 contemporary art, 4 Mosaiksaal, 5 Gallery of Modern Masters, 6 painting depots, 7 workshops, Copyright: Staab Architects

What do you do when the water is rising? You lift your valuables over your head to keep them from the water. The Berlin architect Volker Staab translated this simple reflex into a building. He proposed locating the depots and workshops in a building that floats above the four-wing building inner courtyard. He suggestively terms the building “Noah’s Ark,” in which art is protected from the next flood. Staab left the courtyard itself empty, as a wonderfully generous foyer and event surface.

When one enters the hall and looks up at the lighted ceiling, one has no sense of the bridge-like construction and its 2,300 square metre surface on two storeys. “This is our first invisible house,” as the architect puts it. Daylight, changing according to the weather, enters through ceiling panels. The underside of “Noah’s Ark” is covered with a reflecting foil that is lighted from below, creating the effect of an illuminated ceiling.

Visitor-friendly galleries

Albertinum, “Art from Romanticism to the Present,” inner courtyard, in foreground: Berserker 1–3, 2007/08 by Stella Hamberg, copyright: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo: David Brandt (2010)

The atrium-like quality of the formerly open-air inner courtyard has been largely retained with its facades. The only surprise are the texts in the form of white neon signs. They indicate what is to be found behind the various facades: the sculpture hall with plastic arts in the double-naved vaulted hall of the ground floor, the Gallery of Modern Masters as well as the Klingersaal and the Mosaiksaal, both restored largely in accordance with their historic décor.

The reorganisation and relocation of administrative functions made possible a visitor-friendly design of the galleries. A new entrance at the main line of approach from the Frauenkirche became feasible, a second entrance on the first floor is located at the much-frequented Brühl Terrace.

The sculpture collection

Albertinum, “Art from Romanticism to the Present” sculpture hall, in foreground: Carl Andre, Cedar Solid – Cedar Scatter, 1992, copyright: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo: David Brandt (2010)

In the sculpture hall, visitors are greeted by Rodin and Degas and guided to Kirkeby and Moore. Works by GDR sculptors, such as Wieland Förster, Walter Arnold and Werner Stötzer, make up an important element of the collection.

Sculptures from antiquity are still gathered in accessible depots on the ground floor. Crowded side by side, they populate two glassed-in bays of the entrance hall, as if they were waiting for a bus that will return them to their accustomed rooms in the Semper Building of the Zwinger. Additional sculptures await visitors in vitrines in the wings of the first floor.

Albertinum, “Art from Romanticism to the Present,” accessible depot “Antiquity to the Baroque”, copyright: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo: David Brandt (2010)

From Romanticism to the present

Caspar David Friedrich’s “Gewitterstimmung” opens the Gallery of Modern Masters. A few paces further, Monet, Degas and Liebermann suffuse the space with impressionistic shimmering, Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner and Pechstein shine in an expressive blaze of colours, doubtlessly a highly popular, significant focal point of the collection. And even more highlights await visitors. Each artist, A.R. Penck, Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter, all natives of Dresden, has a room devoted to his works. Gerhard Richter created new works specially for his room.

Albertinum, “Art from Romanticism to the Present,” Klingersaal: Art of the Fin de Siècle, Copyright: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/photo: David Brandt (2010)

Modern art from Romanticism to the present once again has a suitable address in Dresden that is no less attractive than the city’s hitherto existing sights, and in addition can appeal to a public interested in modernity.

Falk Jaeger
is a historian and critic of architecture and lives in Berlin.

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

Any questions about this article?
Write us!
Related links

Contemporary Monument Concepts in Germany

A discussion on appropriate forms of remembrance has already been under way in Germany since the early 1980s.

The birth of a capital

Traces of German speaking architects in Ankara

Architecture and Memory

Architectural tribute to the Kenyan personality of Bildad Kaggia, an exhibition portraying architecture as the strongest medium of cultural memory.


News from Germany’s culture and society