Thursday, February 24, 2011

David Chipperfield in Zürich

British architect David Chipperfield was recently awarded the Royal Gold Medal for his services to architecture. This is the latest of a series of honours, including a knighthood, that the 57 year old has received.  Nevertheless, the modest Englishman is not a household name; he is not one of the dozen or so cosmopolitan Starchitects, like Foster, HadidKoolhaas, Libeskind, Gehry, Calvatrava or Herzog and de Meuron, whose buildings, by their sheer audacity but also by their irreverent isolation from the historical and social context that surrounds them, have established themselves as icons of the postmodern world. Chipperfield's works are generally characterised by a lucid austerity and creative restraint.  It is his thoughtfulness and faithfulness to place that gained him the commission to restore the Neues Museum on Berlin's museum island.  The result demonstrates how David Chipperfield put modest conservation before eye-catching innovation.

Neues Museum Berlin

His Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, is clearly a nod to the great European classical tradition that stretches back from today to antiquity.  The design was controversial because in Germany classical columns have strong and immediate echoes of Nazism's megalomaniacal architectural fantasies.  But Chipperfield's is a classicism that is almost homely, and reflects a homage to Palladio rather than Hitler. This is a modest house for literature.

Museum of Modern Literature Marbach, Germany

Museum of Modern Literature Marbach

In 2008 David Chipperfield won the competition to become the architect of the extension to Zürich's Kunsthaus.  The project is to be completed by 2015 and the new extension will house the wonderful Bührle Collection. Chipperfield was in Zürich earlier this month and talked about his plans for the Kunsthaus. As reported by the newspaper the Tages-Anzeiger, someone from the public remarked that it seemed like the extension was going to be a very big building. "Yes, it's a big building. It's a museum" Chipperfield answered. The new building will be across from the old building, creating a museum square, and behind the new building there will be a large garden. Why, he was asked, wasn't the new building further away from the old building, which would leave a big square? He answered that then you would get "a small garden and a stupid square".  For me the key question was, had he designed this new building specifically for Zürich?  He answered that he had not deliberately imitated anything typically Zürich or Swiss, but he had developed something that suits Zürich, because it is a quiet building. He concluded: "Zürich is a solid city, not Barcelona. It's a Zürich building."

I have earlier written on the major contemporary world architects who: 

"take no account of the context, or the local, when designing their artworks. The buildings are meant to stand out, not to blend in, and are consequently designed with an absolute disregard for the local context. That’s why they would be equally at home anywhere, because they are at home nowhere."

David Chipperfied is an architect, I suspect, whose buildings are not outsized by his ego. It is so nice to find an architect who studies the urban environment before he stamps it with his idea.

Planned extension of Kunsthaus

Old Kunsthaus on the left, Chipperfield's extension on the right

Read more essays like this in my ebook about Zurich.


  1. Familiar name but I can't think of any buildings in London which are his. Often architects win fame outside their own country.

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog Jenny and for leaving a comment. One brand new building from Chipperfield in the UK is the new Turner Gallery in Margate which opened a couple of months ago. Another is the BBC scotland building in Glasgow.

  3. I just came across this blog as I was looking for stuff on Marbach. I'm personally sure the approach can be directly attributed to Asplund/Tessenow myself.

  4. Hey, I’m an interior designer and I’ve been a David Chiperffield fan for quite some time now. I love the way how he merges his creations with the surrounding environment and that distinct Chipperfield brand of mixing classic and contemporary designs on those drafts of his. I recently discovered a Portuguese furniture brand that fits perfectly on some of his projects… Boca do Lobo, have your ever heard about it ? Check out these masterpieces…

    Keep up with those useful posts of yours ! Congrats on the blog, btw !

    1. thanks for the tip Chris and thanks for vsiting my blog. Yes, I also appreciate his mix of the contemporary with the classical.