I remember joining you on a tour with David Chipperfield through his Neues Museum here in Berlin back in 2009. Did his famous “update” of that museum influenced your approach to this project in any way?
The Neues Museum is a complete masterpiece. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a successful (what would you call it?) repurposing, restoration or remodelling. The materials, the thinking and the time taken to get it absolutely right – it’s awesome. Our project for Désiré Feuerle is a lot simpler. We didn’t want to change anything here. The bunker is so monumental on its own, with such a charged atmosphere, that we made very few interventions. Still we’ve done a huge amount of work! It has taken two years: the plaster had to come off the columns, the graffiti went, we cleaned the floors and the ceilings. What makes it so beautiful is the concrete engineering and the fact that even though it was just a functional railway command centre in the middle of the Second World War, the designers were still architects; the columns and proportions are works of art.
What other qualities did this 1942 bunker offer for a transformation into a gallery space?
It is a unique and extraordinarily monumental place with a strong character and strong atmosphere, which is why “found” buildings are perhaps so successful for housing art. When the accented lighting goes in, the art – some of it being sixth- and seventh-century Khmer sculptures – will look really quite mysterious. It will be a real experience, like Angkor Wat in a funny way.
But it is not all “as found”, you have inserted three new, long interior walls for example, with a shadow gap at the top…
Very few people have seen it as yet, but still some have asked: what interventions have you actually done in here? This (wall) is a functional device: everything to do with the heating, smoke extraction and dehumidifying all goes on behind. The shadow gaps at the top are purely functional – to allow the air to flow – they are not there to make the wall look like it floats.
With their metre-thick walls and ceilings, former bunkers are notoriously difficult to work with. What problems did you encounter here?
Well we knew the problems that were coming because we had to make some openings to get things through. When you are cutting through two-metre-thick walls it takes days. The ceiling is three and a half metres thick! And, obviously, it is all reinforced. It is top stuff as well: really high-quality concrete – the Allies never managed to damage it.
I understand there were flooding issues. Was it actually underwater when you started?
Part of the basement was flooded and during construction we had some issues because the basement is below the water table and there is a canal next to it. The basement was rather beautiful when it was flooded because the columns reflected in the water, like the cisterns in Istanbul.
Why would you argue for keeping the building instead of tearing it down and constructing something new in its place? Isn’t preservation going too far in this case? Or was it a more pragmatic decision?
No! I didn’t even think for a second about tearing it down. You do get clients who say: “I’d love to remodel this house” and you say: “No, there’s nothing to keep here”, but I can’t even think of the cost of trying to tear this down! Surely there is an argument for saying that this is very much part of the fabric of the city of Berlin. It’s a monument in a sense. And I think that it is brilliant that somebody like Désiré has found his dream place for his collection. It would hardly be usable for anything else.
Photos: Gilbert McCarragher, courtesy John Pawson Architects.
John Pawson has spent thirty years making rigorously simple architecture, based on the qualities of proportion, light and materials. Early commissions included homes for the writer Bruce Chatwin, opera director Pierre Audi and collector Doris Lockhart Saatchi, together with art galleries in London, Dublin and New York. Subsequent projects have spanned a broad range of scales and typologies, from Calvin Klein’s flagship store in Manhattan and airport lounges for Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, to a Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and sets for new ballets at London’s Royal Opera House and the Opéra Bastille in Paris. He is currently engaged in the project to create a new permanent home for the Design Museum in the former Commonwealth Institute in London, scheduled to open in late 2016.