Städel Museum A Sky Full of Suns

Frankfurt’s new Städel Museum is going subterranean with its new addition. The new exhibition rooms of the museum are covered with a lawn in the courtyard of the existing building. Due to the many circular skylight windows, breaking through the lawn, the construction is visible from the outside.

Front of the addition Front of the addition | Photo: Norbert Miguletz © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main Building a museum, even if it’s just an addition to a museum, is a crowning achievement for architects, particularly if it happens to be one of the city’s most important museums. For such a task, architectural artists generally buckle down and dream up exotically chic and vain constructions intended to go down in the annals of the art of architecture. One must possess a great deal of self-confidence if, after cool analysis of the project, one arrives at a completely unspectacular solution and realises it down the line. In Frankfurt am Main a potential prestige construction can now be seen – or for that matter, not seen, as the local architects Till Schneider and Michael Schumacher conceal the new addition to the Städel Museum underground. The architects wished to avoid an additional construction volume for the fifth and largest expansion – 3000 square metres and thereby a doubling of the exhibition surface - of the Städelsche Kunstinstitut.

Porthole windows as iconic image

In the courtyard of the classical triple-wing building, rebuilt by Johannes Krahn following severe wartime destruction, the architects headed down below the earth with the new division for contemporary art. They thus made themselves invisible next to the two additions by Gustav Peichl (1990) and Jochem Jourdan (1999). The courtyard remains an accessible lawn surface that arches slightly in the centre to form a low, gentle hill. Only 195 glass “eyes,” circular skylights with diameters of 1.5 – 2.5 m, through which the subterranean space receives its daylight: a sky full of suns. The new construction thus arrives at an iconic image that impresses itself on the mind and is recognised again.

Stair sculpture to the underworld

With a couple of tricks, the architects succeeded in closely connecting the room, which was actually separated off inside the museum, with the existing exhibition spaces in spite of this fact. Visitors reach the new hall from the entrance foyer by twin staircases leading down to the ground storey. In the ground-storey foyer, a representative flight of stairs with streamlined handrails opens up in the course of the building’s main central axis, inviting the visitor to descend into the brightly-illuminated underworld. The staircase is a sculpture in and of itself; it was cast in one piece, including balustrades, with travertine-coloured concrete. The visitor senses this, too. One does not walk on it: one descends and finds oneself in the central axis of the subterranean garden hall, and feels astonishment at its size.

Showrooms bright as day, with sophisticated lighting technology

Interior Interior | Photo: Norbert Miguletz, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main It was to be a spacious, easily comprehensible space, uniformly white, differing nonetheless from the classical White Cube through its characteristic, elegant deck and its porthole-style windows. Natural light was to play a central role, in spite of the basement location. The showrooms present themselves so brightly illuminated thanks to the natural light, carefully measured with high technical overhead, which can be adjusted according to exhibition requirements. At dusk, the daylight is first supplemented and then replaced by an imperceptible admixture of artificial lighting. Contemporary curators mostly want total control over light intensity and colour. In this regard, no wishes remain unfulfilled in the Städel’s new Garden Halls. Each work of art can be lighted in the manner best suited to it, each and every desired lighting atmosphere or effects can be created.

Individual use in flexible spaces

The Berlin architects Kuehn Malvezzi, with their great experience in the area of contemporary art, were responsible for the exhibition system. Their house-within-a-house concept, with its asymmetrical, free constellation of large cubes, open at the top and of various sizes, creates a new typology of space. A dozen small cabinets are at the disposal of the curators, who can make individual use of them. The cubes, made of white, lightweight plasterboard walls, are arranged in the extensive space without any fixed order or hierarchy, creating “streets” and “squares” that can also be used.

“Resetting” contemporary art

Although the Garden Halls’ twelve circular supports for the most part disappear into the white walls of the exhibition architecture, one might have wished the walls to be somewhat lower as they come very close to the deck, colliding optically with the round windows and disturbing the experience of the room as a whole. But this is no unpardonable “mistake,” as in any case the space installation will make way for a new spatial system in a few years, when the collection will be presented anew by rotation. Museum director Max Hollein now enjoys the best opportunities to “reset” the Museum of Contemporary Art and to “reintegrate contemporary art into the history from which it has supposedly departed,” as he puts it. He has big plans indeed.