Cologne 2: Kolumba
The architectural highlight of Cologne is definitely the Kolumba Museum, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Despite its architectural splendor, the building has a very modest place in the city center. The design is simply integrated in the building mass of a generic perimeter block. It’s like a key performer that is standing in the background.
The tension of being both ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ reappears in the architecture of the façade. Like its neighbors, the building is strictly aligned to the street. But unlike its neighbors, the interior floors aren’t articulated in the façade. Instead, all sense of scale is distorted. There are a couple of enormous windows up at the… first or second floor. A little lower, slim horizontal lines define perforated surfaces. What does the distance between these lines represent? Does it tell us anything?
Within the perfectly flat façade the different architectural elements are combined in a collage. The pieces themselves have no clear representation, nor do they relate in a conventional way to each other. There are simply some remains of a Gothic structure, then some screens and ‘up there’ some windows. When a woman appears behind one of the windows, the frame suddenly looks oddly big… The Kolumba Museum looks smaller than it actually is.
In contrast to the ‘blank’ surface of the exterior wall of the building, the meandering roofline paints a clear-cut silhouette against the sky. The white color of the brick and the higher elevations at the corners of the building certainly attribute to this appearance.
Like the windows, the bricks are exceptionally large too. In fact, they are the biggest bricks that can be made. The brick is very long and wide, but not so high. The size was traditionally used in the area. Only after an extensive survey the architect found a manufacturer that could still make it. The brick can’t get much bigger, as a further increase in size, would also mean a further decrease in strength. So, this is about it.
A perimeter block, flat surfaces, a picturesque roof, (weak) brick walls… it is the same receipt that the Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage applied in his Amsterdam Commodities Exchange in 1900. But whereas Berlage in his façade abstractly mirrored the surrounding architecture, Zumthor distorts the image of the city. It’s minimalism doing surrealism.
The program of the building is a combination of a small church, an archeological site and a museum. The chapel has its own entrance from the street and is build on the inner foundations of the church that once stood here. The other foundations are on display inside and integrated in the exterior wall. In the wall the old structure functions as ornament, similar to the ornamental Kraanspoor building in Amsterdam and the ornamental Caixa Forum in Madrid.
A second entrance provides access to the museum. From the entrance hall there is a big double door and a small stairway leading upstairs. The doors open onto the dark space of the archeological site, for which almost the entire ground floor is reserved. The stairs lead to two stories of traditional museum space.
Behind the double doors a vast space opens up. As a visitor your movement is restrained to a zigzagging boardwalk. The light that comes through the brick screens give the space an almost sacred ‘aura’. In combination with the high position of the screens and the vertigo effect provided by the slender columns, it feels like a far echo of the architecture found in some large Gothic churches or cathedrals. Whereas the boardwalk triggers you to look at the foundations here on display, the architecture around recreates the atmosphere of the construction that once stood on these foundations. Peter Zumthor brought the spirit of this place back to life.
I suspect the space is mainly experienced on a phenomenological level. The real meaning of the space came to me later, so the first impression seems to be registered on an unconscious level. That also means you can’t really walk away from the experience, which kind of makes it un-free. In a world where the ‘fake’ is so obvious, reality has become scary.
After this space the upper two floors make perfect sense. The exhibition shows pieces found in the excavation of the church below. This is however freshly combined with modern (religious) art.
The layout of the exhibition is structured by a snaking open gallery space, on which some smaller rooms open up to. Fascinatingly a cut runs all the way around the floor of the main gallery. The floors of the adjacent rooms are a little higher. I suppose the cut has to suggest these spaces are ‘carved out’ of a solid piece of rock. When I was a kid I used to draw such cuts in my clay models. At Kolumba you see watchmen slip litter into these cuts.
The idea of the cave is elaborated in the materialization of the space. All surfaces in the exhibition space are solid – like it is carved from a piece of rock. Furthermore all floors, walls and ceilings are waving a little - questioning the idea of the flat surface and thereby questioning the definition of the space itself. With all surfaces waving, the space itself starts to shiver. Surreal.