Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Evidence of previous churches

BLDBLG (an excellent site for anyone interested in the built environment) has an intriguing post on a new art museum just opened in Cologne.

The Kolumba museum is built on the site of St. Kolumba's church which was virtually destroyed by allied bombing in WWII.

As Geoff Manaugh writes:

"The backstory, briefly, is that the church – called St. Kolumba – was "reduced to rubble during the second world war," but, we read, "[a] wooden Madonna survived the bombing so, after the war, local architect Gottfried Böhm built the small octagonal chapel on the site, dedicated to the 'Madonna of the Ruins'. In the 1970s, excavations revealed evidence of previous churches, not to mention vaults filled with human bones." Evidence of previous churches! Such a beautiful phrase. Finding evidence of other buildings – older buildings – inside the building you're now standing in.

Or perhaps you find evidence of a newer building, inside the building you're standing in – and you realize, stunned, that someone is replacing the building, slowly and in secret over the course of several years, in bits and pieces, here and there, leaving traces, evidence, clues.

In any case, Kolumba, with its swirling foundations on top of foundations on top of crypts, now houses religious art. In 650 years, someone will build another museum atop its wreckage."

He also links to a longer Guardian article "The perforated palace" which picks up on the museum's architect Peter Zumthor:
"There is no floor, only a red wooden walkway that zigzags through the half-light, past stone stumps and concrete columns that reach up to the ceiling like new shoots. Below this walkway, disappearing into the depths and the darkness, are the excavated ruins of crypts, vaults and foundations. And, barely audible above the traffic passing by outside, comes the sound of wings flapping and pigeons cooing. Where are they? None are visible.

This, the cavernous ground-floor room of Cologne's new Kolumba art museum, is a place of mystery and awe. You enter it from the museum's airy foyer, through thick leather curtains, and are instantly transported to another world. It is dimly lit, but fresh air and dappled sunlight spill in from honeycomb-like perforations high above. Embedded in the light brick walls are the blackened windows and arches of a ruined gothic church, onto which this new building has been grafted. To the right, a blue-green glow emanates from the stained-glass windows of a small, octagonal chapel that has been swallowed by this space. We're looking into it from the outside. It sounds like there's a lot going on here, but it doesn't feel like it. Instead, the sensation is of a sacred space: calm, powerful, unforgettable. Time seems to stand still; thousands of years of history are visible all at once. And audible, too - the pigeons turn out to be a sound installation by Bill Fontana, a ghostly memory of the birds that once lived among these ruins....

Zumthor's handling of the lower level is so striking, it's easy to forget about the galleries. From the foyer with the leather curtains, a narrow path of plain white travertine stone leads upstairs, winding through the two levels, widening here and there to form larger spaces, and opening onto separate rooms.

Fittingly, Kolumba's exhibition philosophy is to mix it all up. Rather than go for a dry chronological layout, works are linked thematically or juxtaposed engagingly. One room is lined with Warhol prints of coloured crosses on black backgrounds. Standing in the middle is a lone, carved Christ figure from the 16th century. Some rooms are tall, lit through opaque high windows, others are long, low and windowless. There's even a darkened room lined with black velvet displaying religious silverware. In keeping with the building's anti-Bilbao exterior, there are no distracting labels to tell you what you're looking at. If you want to know what something is, there's a booklet.

The result is serene yet stimulating. In fact, so seamlessly executed is the whole that, at times, it's hard to separate the building and the art. You might just as well admire the wood-panelling in the reading room as the Rhenish Madonnas on the wall. Or marvel at the way the huge windows are positioned so as to create a glow of light around each corner, and also capture views of the cathedral and the surrounding city..."

(I couldn't find a credit for the photos except the Kolumba)

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