Deep dive #2: The Kunstpalast – An interview with architect Joachim Sieber

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“We wanted to continue the story of the Kunstpalast rather than invent something new.”

The second part of our deep dive into the Kunstpalast looks at the architecture of the new exhibition space for the museum, which fully reopened in November 2023. We met Joachim Sieber, who – together with his Düsseldorf architecture firm – spent three years renovating and converting the historic building after winning a European tender. The city of Düsseldorf invested 50 million euros in the project, which saw 5,000 square metres of collection space redesigned. Special exhibitions and the main collection alike can now be reached via the main entrance and the central foyer. The museum’s restaurant space has also been completely redesigned, with the gatehouse closed off by a glass front. The Kunstpalast is not Sieber’s first museum project. Indeed, his firm created the exhibition spaces for the Philara Collection in the former glass factory on Birkenstrasse, for example. He talks to us here about the art of omission and Düsseldorf’s cosmopolitan flair.

After your studies, including at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts, you worked not only for Paul Schneider-Esleben, but also for Oswald Mathias Ungers. The construction of the exhibition wing was his work – only the heritage-listed facade of the previous neo-baroque building remains today. Have you picked up the baton?
In my first job for him, Ungers entrusted me with the project management for the extension of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle art gallery. In 1995, he won the competition to redesign the Kunstpalast and I was meant to project manage that too. However, I decided against it and founded my own firm in 1996 because I wanted to start a family. My wife and I actually met working for Ungers and, strictly speaking, she still works for him, as she runs the Ungers Archive for Architectural Research alongside our architectural firm. So yes, there is a bit of continuity there and it’s nice, of course, to close the circle in this way.

One striking change is that the Kunstpalast now only has a single entrance, ending the era of two separate entrances – one for the exhibition wing and one for the collection wing. Now, all visitors use the original main entrance. The tour of the collection starts in the foyer of the exhibition wing on the first floor. As a visitor, I can see that everything is new and yet it looks as if it has never been any different. Was that your aim?
That’s right. The key question was: how can we present the collection for what it is? Something very special. The Kunstpalast is known for its large temporary exhibitions. But there seemed to be no public awareness that it also has a really broad-ranging permanent collection too. This is due partly to the fact that the second floor of the collection wing was out of action for decades – there were continual problems with condensation after the last renovation. But also, I personally don’t know of any museum that has more than one entrance and works really well. It was clear to us that the tour of the collection should start in the same place as the temporary exhibitions, namely in the foyer of the Ungers Building. And while we wanted the routes to be distinctly similar, we also wanted the different phases of the building’s construction to remain visible. Originally, today’s three-winged complex consisted of two buildings: the Kunstpalast, where the Ungers Building is now located, and the Wilhelm Kreis art museum. In the 1980s, Helmut Hentrich added a second floor to the original building. We wanted to continue the building’s story rather than invent something new.

What were the biggest challenges? How did you deal with the monumental architectural style, a legacy of Expressionism?
Wilhelm Kreis is the one that laid the foundations, which we could not and would not have worked against. This building was once considered the most modern museum in Germany. Kreis worked very innovatively with different kinds of lighting – it was his idea to include industrial elements such as skylights, for example. And there was this strict grid pattern. What we found was not a burden for us – on the contrary, it gave us a well-defined framework. However, there was one issue that we only became fully aware of when we looked at the old plans in the city archives at the start of the project. The building was erected in less than a year in 1926 for the great exhibition for healthcare, social welfare and physical exercise (GeSoLei). You can't tell from the outside, but every corner is built differently and each one had different defects.

In the belvedere, which connects the two wings, the statics were so bad that rope barriers had to be set up on the first floor to prevent visitors from straying too far from the centre of the room. Today, it is a room with cosy seating areas set off by twin brick pillars. The deep windows offer a panoramic view over the entire entrance court as far as Tonhalle concert hall. The floor below houses the new Anna Maria restaurant. To create a space for the restaurant, the former entrance to the GeSoLei exhibition grounds was glazed from floor to ceiling.
The provision of food and drink in the museum was the second central aspect of its renovation. A building of this size absolutely needs a functioning restaurant and that is only possible if it is also accessible to the public from the street. Using glass to close the entrance off gave the courtyard a completely different feel. I think the biggest plus is that the restaurant enlivens the museum and the whole neighbourhood. And the room at the top of the belvedere is such a great space – I’m a little jealous of the person who actually created it in 1926.

Spiral staircase in the Kunstpalast

The redesigned museum rooms are understated, meaning that novel features stand out even more. Like the emergency exit signs, which only light up green in the event of an emergency. Or the sculpted spiral staircases, much less understated! Did you plan to immortalise yourself as an architect here?
With a project like this, it’s about paring everything back further and further and then asking yourself: how much more can we take away without it becoming banal? As the architecture of an exhibition space needs to be unobtrusive, decisions have to be made as to what features to accentuate and where. The spiral staircase in the Rubenssaal, for example, was shifted around the entire room during the design process and given all kinds of shapes. And it’s key for ensuring that people follow the route through the museum and don’t walk in the wrong direction.

The legendary Düsseldorf artists’ bar Creamcheese has been faithfully reconstructed on the second floor of the belvedere. The room is part of the exhibition, but on Fridays and on Saturdays once the museum has closed it turns into a real bar. Were you involved in the Creamcheese bar’s revival and have you visited it yourself?
Yes, I’ve had a drink there, of course! They play my kind of music, and we were involved in the reconstruction. I never got to experience the original bar on Neubrückstrasse – I only moved to Düsseldorf in 1983. But there are photos and Heinz Mack’s old plans, and lots of original paraphernalia too. We rebuilt some things, for example Mack’s bar made of sheet steel. Naturally, we consulted Mack during the reconstruction.

What significance does art have for the city of Düsseldorf?
It’s impossible to overstate it. Art and Düsseldorf are inseparable. Just take its art heritage, with Anna Maria de Medici and Jan Wellem, the Düsseldorf School of Painting, the Academy of Arts – art gives the city its cosmopolitan flair. It creates a sense of vast opportunity and actually being close to the action. What Düsseldorf has to offer culturally for a city of its size is exceptional, not just in Germany, but in Europe, if not the world. My wife and I take full advantage of the city’s diverse offerings. I’m not from here, but I’m a big Düsseldorf fan and of course I also love the liberal Rhineland. Live and let live. I’ve seen a lot of the world and the Rhineland is one of the most open regions there is.

sieberarchitekten.de

Interview: Eva Westhoff
Photos: With kind permission of Joachim Sieber and Kunstpalast.

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