It is now almost a century since someone first had the idea of founding an architecture museum in Germany. In 1906, representatives of the Confederation of Silesian Architects gathered in Mannheim to discuss the question “By what means can we influence the creative design of private buildings in towns and the country?” Thirty-seven German associations of architects and engineers from throughout the country believed the solution was to found a “museum of national German architecture”. It was not until 1913, however, that the final version of an exposé was completed, and the outbreak of World War I prevented the plans ever being realized.
In the early 1920s Ernst May, the Frankfurt Municipal Councilor for Buildings, attempted to solicit international support in establishing a museum of town planning in the city. The project was likewise doomed to failure. And it was not until the end of the 1970s – when under Hilmar Hoffmann (SPD), then the city’s Director of Cultural Affairs, and Lord Mayor Walter Wallmann (CDU), the plans for the Frankfurt Museum Mile began to take shape – that the idea of setting up an architecture museum in Germany gained a new lease of life. Heinrich Klotz was consulted, an expert in the history of art and architecture, who had already presented his concept for an architecture museum to several municipalities, but his plans had hitherto fallen on deaf ears. As he recalls in his memoirs, penned in 1999: “I had for several years had a plan in mind and now set about elaborating a concept for a venue for exhibitions and a collection, a place which architecture needed just as much as it needed a forum for discussion. It had to be a museum that addressed topical issues and at the same time through historical retrospectives explained the history of architecture, be it mediaeval cathedrals or Greek temples, to the general public.” It took both him and Hilmar Hoffmann a lot of working convincing the City Council before, in 1977, the City of Frankfurt signed a declaration of intent to build such a museum.
It was soon decided that the new institution be housed in one of the two turn-of-the-century villas at the corner of Schweizerstrasse and Schaumainkai. Klotz chose the smaller of the two buildings, with a façade adorned by huge Ionic columns looking out over the River Main. Giving an historical building a new lease of life was fully in keeping with his idea of the main mission of architecture. His energetic efforts to preserve the town center in Marburg had been intended to demonstrate that in his opinion the task facing modern architecture had to be to preserve older buildings as well as to breathe renew the world of buildings in a way that was ecologically sound.
Heinrich Klotz suggested that Cologne-based architect Oswald Mathias Ungers be commissioned to convert the historical villa into a museum. Ungers had long been demanding that architecture revert to artistic traditions in building, a point on which Klotz fully concurred. This explains why the conversion of the villa on the banks of the River Main did not result in a purely functional museum building, but in a building created programmatically for architecture.
The conversion of the turn-of-the-century villa on Schaumainkai, which took from 1979 until 1984, meant not only re-designing a building that until then had been used as residential accommodation such that it functioned as a museum, but also visualizing architecture as the theme of the building.
To this end, the villa, created in 1912 by Fritz Geldmacher in the Neoclassicist style, was completely gutted, down to the outside walls. Inside this outer sheath, Oswald Mathias Ungers then proceeded to place a building with a footprint of five by five meters. This “building within a building” extends upwards by means of four pillars, which demarcate the center of the basement auditorium. In the floors of the museum above, this four-pillar structure gradually emerges as genuine architecture in its own right. The core section (i.e., the building within the building”) is enclosed by walls of its own, with windows and door openings, and topped by a saddleback roof. In other words, at the heart of the museum architecture itself becomes the key issue, taking the oldest possible example of it, namely house building.
By opting for the four-pillar structure in the auditorium Ungers references one of the oldest motifs in the history of architecture, that of the “canopy”: Four pillars support a protective roof or canopy. In ancient palaces the “canopy” marked the central location, namely the hearth, and it leant greater height to the thrones of popes, emperors and kings, and even today is still in evidence above the high altar in churches. Since time immemorial it has symbolized the center of the earth. Wherever mankind erects four supports and a roof he will find security and his true self by fencing himself off from the unprotected expanse beyond.
On the outside, the DAM is clearly distinguished from neighboring edifices. It is protected from the noise of traffic on Schaumainkai by a wrap-around wall, which on the street side takes the form of an open loggia. Over three meters high, the wall, which is made of cut rusticated, red sandstone blocks, references both the rusticated base of the old building, and the notion of “city walls”. And there is a special reason for this, because as a consequence within the museum’ the entrance area, the corridors which stretch along the sides of the villa, the garden room to the rear and the neighboring twelve small courtyards form, as it were, a miniature town.
The exhibition hall on the ground floor, which occupies a large area of what was formerly the gardens of the former villa, features a square inner courtyard at its center, which is likewise enclosed in glass walls divided into squares, showing particularly clearly how the entire new building is based on a grid of squares. There is evidence of this throughout the building – in the spaces between the pillars, in the pattern of the flooring, even in the design of the chairs in the auditorium. The hall is completed by a flat barrel vault, again sub-divided into small squares. This was a deliberate reference on Ungers’ part to one of the pioneering interiors in Modernist architecture, namely the famous tellers’ hall in Otto Wagner’s 1906 Postsparkasse building in Vienna, and its architectural inspiration, Andrea Palladio’s basilica in Vicenza.
The first floor of the museum – now back inside the former villa – sports an additional exhibition hall divided by supports into three aisles, thereby referencing a basilica. In the middle, the space once again concentrates around the four pillars that support the “building within a building”. Our gaze is directed upward through the openings in the ceilings adjacent to the sides of the pillars and we now get a clear view how over the next two floors, the four-pillar configuration creates a finished building.
The concept behind the entire building also now becomes clear: from the “building within a building” – the concentrated core, as it were – opens out like a fan. Around the “core” there is a broad shell in the zone between the inserted edifice and the outer wall of the old building. This intermediate area houses both the stairwells as well as the heavy-duty elevator. The stairwells are of necessity narrow and hence not particularly illustrious. Horizontally speaking, the building is a multi-shell structure, whereas the vertical illustrates the transformation from the four-pillar base in the basement to the house on the fourth floor.
DAM is first and foremost not a functional museum but instead, for those that can “read” the structure, full of meaning and a programmatic building. It was a case of Ungers giving thoroughbred shape to his theory of transformational morphology in a manner that he would hardly ever duplicate. Which is why so many visitors, especially from abroad, come to Frankfurt every year, not only to see the exhibitions, but also to familiarize themselves with the building itself. DAM illustrates in exemplary fashion what Heinrich Klotz proclaimed to be the guiding principle in post-modern architecture, for it deliberately blends the design of a building with an interior that tells a story.