If you really think about it, my Churchill Fellowship is basically about looking at rooms with stuff in them. Well, to be precise, I’m looking at how we humans look at rooms with stuff in them. Thus stripped of all detail and context my endeavour sounds rather baffling, but earlier this week I experienced just such a stripping back of detail and found it to be one of the most uplifting days of the trip so far.
There’s something of the temple about David Chipperfield’s Literaturmuseum der Moderne (aka the German Museum of Modern Literature). The entrance pavilion stands like a neat acropolis high above the Neckar valley and design pilgrims like me, arriving from the nearby metropolis of Stuttgart, make their way up through the medieval streets of Marbach to a pair of museums dedicated to Literature. The 1903 Schiller National Museum dominates the summit and is flanked by the 2006 Modern Literature Museum : the one looking like a classic piece of Baroque civic architecture, the other like a confident and highly-controlled piece of modernity. (There's also a 1970s groundscraper of an archive on hill but the less said about that the better.)
It was early in the day for a museum visit and as I made my way through the quiet volumes I could feel my twitter brain calming down and my senses begin to take over. There was a spiritual, almost monastic simplicity about the spaces, the circulation, the furnishings and the gathering of light in special places. I felt connected to the building in its rawness and its openness in ways that are unusual within a museum whose rooms are so often heavily mediated.
My focus on the architecture was in part due to my lack of German as I was unable to dive into the content without assistance. I was blessed by a guided tour from one of the researchers, Richard Schumm, who skilfully translated some key exhibits like the “Memory Faces” and Marlena Dietrich’s telegram to Erich Kastner congratulating him on his joyful novel Emile and the Detectives ( I loved that book when I was at school!). He also showed me the wonderfully-named “phantasiebauplan” or “construction plan” for a novel by Von Niebelschutz. These visual displays were much more compelling than I had ever imagined and answered some of my questions about how to go about displaying "flatware", the museum term for what I thought were two-dimensional objects.
Experiencing these spaces and exploring some of the exhibits before learning about the rationale of their design was really useful as it gave me an unmediated experience of the objects themselves, how they were displayed, how they related to each other spatially and materially. And that’s exactly what the design rationale turned out to be – to create an unmediated experience of archive objects! Might not sound like the most exciting brief but, believe me, it really was…..
Now, a poem may be a two dimensional piece of paper to you and me but, to the brilliant and allusive mind of Professor Heike Gfrereis, director of the Modern Literature Museum, a poem takes up quite a large space in the world and, as for a novel, well, it’s a positively towering three-dimensional object that should be seen in section as well as in plan. As Gfrereis described the idea behind the flickering banks of documents, stacked in sectional displays, vertically lit by gorgeous LED wands, I began to see the wider worlds embodied in each of these objects.
The new permanent exhibition is, rather fittingly, called Die Seele – The Soul – and it’s this idea of the spirit of place, the spirit of the author, the spirit of ideas that Gfrereis is wanting visitors to connect with in the museum. And it was this spirit of place that Chipperfield’s team had so clearly understood in their winning submission. Gfrereis told me 95% of the submissions proposed a building underground, a bunker to act as a functional and a symbolic archive but, Gfrereis said, they were completely missing the point. She wanted a building that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the existing monument to Schiller and a building that would create spaces to allow visitors to feel the immanence of each object. The object itself is thus the medium to access the imagination and the world of characters and structures beyond.
I had expected this building to be based on a concept derived from narrative structures and literary allusions, and indeed that was what many of the client team initially wanted. They were attached to the idea of creating a building with “meaning”, of a building like Libeskind or Gehry produces with a referential language and a legible concept. But Gfreries was adamant that the building be about only itself: about the music of architecture, about the sound, about the materials, about the tone of voice in space and, of course, about the light and the landscape. In the opening week, visitors experienced the museum without any objects on display – their experience was designed to be of the spaces themselves.
As Professor Heike described her poetic vision I began to understand why I had felt the semi-religious and temple overtones in and around the building. There is an uncompromising clarity about the brief and an uncompromising clarity about the building. That clarity is about the immanence of the senses, about being drawn through dark spaces towards the light, about glimpsing a huge view through a small opening, about allowing the imagination to touch other imaginary worlds.
I saw the museum four days ago and had planned to write a blog that same evening, and then the next day and then the next, but each time I struggled to know how to get hold of the subject. How to talk about such a bold yet simple structure, about such a dynamic yet subtle museology, about such a complex set of histories on this beautiful and symbolic site. And then there's the landscape and notions of authorship and the different approach to display with the historic museum.... Too many stories for one day. So, finally, today I followed the example of the building itself and settled on telling just one story of many. Perhaps another day I’ll tell a different story but for now that’s what it’s all about, a Story of Rooms.