A new architecture museum has opened in Berlin: The Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing. And it has kicked off with an exhibition of the drawings of that ur-architectural draughtsman and fantasist himself, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, on tour from the doyen of architectural museums, the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London – so it has set the bar high for its programme from the start.
uncube went along to check out the exhibition and the new building it’s housed in.
Located in the south of Prenzlauerberg – an area long in danger of over-gentrifying under an avalanche of new money – the Tchoban Foundation sits on the edge of the Pfefferberg Brewery site, adding further ballast to this developing cultural hub, which includes the Aedes gallery across the courtyard and Ólafur Elíasson’s Berlin Studio to its rear.
The museum building, bookending a wall of traditional five-storey Berlin apartment blocks on Christinenstrasse, was designed by Sergei Tchoban and Sergey Kuznetsov, and has an aesthetic of roughly stacked boxes that echoes SANAA’s New Museum in New York. But the limited footprint here means its sheer verticality is reminiscent more of stacked shipping containers, like a stumpier version of the main Freitag store in Zurich. Yet materially the building is not mining a battered steel industrial chic, but another architectural aesthetic altogether: the ancient solidity and timelessness afforded by slabs of tooled stone, referenced here through sandstone-coloured cast concrete. The desired echo is perhaps the shaft of a huge classical pier, knocked out of joint over the ages – as seen in many a Piranesi capriccio.
Archaic references are further underlined by the richly textured and striated patterning of the surface treatment, looking from afar a bit like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Closer this resolves as repeated out-takes of a classical interior perspective: huge drawings incised into the stone, which graphically flag-up the purpose of the museum yet appear somewhat crude and mechanical in detail. This is perhaps a purposeful play of source and technique, the unique hand of the traditional architect’s sketch translated into the endlessly reproducibility of the computer drawing and the cutting techniques of today, but it works against the initial sensuality of the façade.
Because of its tight site, entering the building feels a bit like stepping into a giant walk-in closet − if a very grand and tall one − a feeling increased by the over-scaled floor-to-ceiling doors. This is an expensively tooled cabinet of a building, with heavy, high-end materials throughout, from its library-like entrance space lined in wood to its heavy brass door handles.
For all this grandeur, the two storeys of galleries themselves don’t quite get away from the feeling of being merely L-shaped left-over spaces around the stairwell.
The first exhibition in these galleries Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered is a very simply hang: almost dull at first sight. It presents the 15 drawings that the Sir John Soane Museum owns from the so-called Paestum Cycle by Piranesi, in which the Italian artist/architect recorded the spectacular group of three Greek Doric temples situated on the coast of Italy, south of Naples. He made these as highly worked-up source material for his last great graphic project, Différentes Vues de Pesto, one completed by his son after Piranesi’s death, and published posthumously in 1778.
However, close-up each drawing is compelling in its texture and detail, somehow more surprising because the usual experience of Piranesi’s works – even when spectacular in subject – is primarily through reproduced etchings. Here, these drawings, laid down on thick, sometimes slightly pitted paper, are rich in different tonalities of coloured chalk and ink that are layered up and worked in differing degrees of intensity.
Each drawing seems to delight in setting up ever-more complicated perspectival views of the temples, with the simpler exterior set-pieces of each on it's own, giving way to close-up views of layered interior colonnades and views through to further serried colonnades of the neighbouring structures. Figures of horsemen, shepherds, and cows liberally inhabit the views, but were apparently mostly added by different hands. As a result they are often drawn in contrasting coloured ink, and veer wildly in scale at times in relation to the architecture. But rather than distracting from the primary delineation of the structures, this actually lends variety and incident – even humour – to the works, whilst always remaining distinctly secondary.
Accompanying each drawing in the exhibition is a generous caption, which often copiously describes blow-by-blow what you can see, and sometimes reads as overly academic. It seems like scholarship is being worn a bit too much on the sleeve. What is missing, apart from one introductory text, is slightly more approachable contextual visual material and reference panels to top and tail the exhibition. In particular, comparative illustration of the final prints that resulted from these drawings would have been very welcome. And luckily, there is an excellent revised edition of Professor John Wilton Ely’s Piranesi, Paestum and Soane, which does indeed contain such contextual material, unlocking the background to the sequence of drawings – one just has to buy it!
Overall, these reservations are minor, given that this impressive, small museum has landed so fully-formed and seemingly firing on all cylinders.
– Rob Wilson, Berlin
Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered.
Until 31 August, 2013
Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing