Review: The Tchoban Foundation, Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin

Review for the RIBA Journal, published Autumn 2013 (not accessible online).

The first glimpse from the street is striking: a number of huge stone blocks, each carved with intricate hieroglyphs, seems to have been stacked against the end of a nineteenth century Berlin terrace. On closer inspection, the blocks become a building, with each floor level presenting a massive solidity, contrasting only with the top floor – an entirely glazed box that reflects and merges with the sky.

This is the Tchoban Foundation’s Museum of Architectural Drawing, a small and in every sense personal work by architects Sergei Tchoban and Sergey Kuznetsov of SPEECH Tchoban & Kuznetsov. The Foundation will be home to Sergei Tchoban’s own collection of (currently) around 600 drawings, and the architect has designed every detail, down to the door handles and furniture. The foundation aims to show three exhibitions a year from other collections, temporarily lending some of its own collection in return: currently on display is a collection of beautiful drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, on loan from London’s John Soane museum, which in turn is currently showing a selection from the Tchoban collection. The foundation’s collection ranges from the 16th century to the present day, from from Cerceau to Gehry, and also includes a great number of Tchoban’s own drawings. Its aim is to promote the use of architectural drawing – increasingly a lost art, and a subject close to Sergei Tchoban’s heart.

The building’s form and orientation were carefully considered, as was the use of enlarged fragments of drawings from the collection (the “hieroglyphs”) on the façades: “This specific corner lot was chosen to accommodate the Foundation, since it allowed for a distinctly sculptural appearance of the building. The contrast of fine architectural drawings and the three-dimensional composition of volumes is to express the special relation between drawing and construction. It alludes to the fact that the drawings on thin paper sheets are referred to as rather delicate, sensitive and of course plane objects whereas built architecture is much more robust, much larger in scale and, in a sense, archaic. And yet, the building derives from the drawing.”

The five storeys (plus basement) contain two small picture galleries, a storage room for the rest of the collection, a reception area and a fifth floor office with two large roof-top balconies. For its size, the building’s volumetry is more complex than it first appears: each of the storey-height “blocks” is different: each has a slightly different orientation or shape, with small cantilevers, and a larger cantilever for the glass box of the fifth floor. (Unlike most architectural attempts to make glass buildings “dissolve” in the sky, from certain angles it really is successful, with the occasional puzzling reflection of a brick chimney or two). Tchoban describes the cantilevered glass upper storey as the “crest” of the building, “… creating a relationship between corpus and top that is characteristic of European architecture.” The glass signals the functional difference of the top floor, and creates a beacon of light at night.

The new building stands on the perimeter of the former Pfefferberg brewery, an extensive complex of 19th century red brick buildings now converted into other functions, most notably the Aedes architecture gallery/campus, and the multi-storey workshop and office of artist Olafur Eliasson (his building directly abuts that of the museum, and some of his works-in-progress can be glimpsed through adjacent windows). Surprisingly, the minimalist, irregular form fits comfortably among its neighbours, helped in part by the exuberant range of 19th century styles that surround it (the brewery itself crashes neogothic with industrial, and then competes with the wedding-cake stucco of the surrounding street façades). It also helps that sleek minimalist residential interventions are a familiar sight in this highly gentrified district in the former east Berlin.

A small criticism would be that the scattering of irregular window openings at ground level and to the rear elevation overpowers the façade engravings whose lines they follow. The windows’ flush glazing is very dark in contrast with the sandstone-like finish, and somehow detracts from the illusion that this might be a building hewn from solid stone.

The motifs derived from the drawing collection continue inside the building, reappearing on the longest wall of the entrance room, where they are inscribed into walnut-veneered full height panels. The museum is open to the public, although the atmosphere on entering is one of hushed privacy: a private members’ club, finished almost entirely in dark wood. Bespoke glass display cases along one wall are already stacked with a selection of architectural tomes. The only daylight is filtered through a number of small, irregular shaped obscure-glazed openings.

The two gallery rooms themselves have no natural daylight (due to the sensitivity of the collection), with low level lighting and, at the time of writing, muted red and grey colour schemes that echo similar colours at the Soane Museum, and underpin the greys and reds of Piranesi’s beautiful drawings.

The top floor office level, by contrast, is an explosion of light, glazed on three sides, and with two deep balconies. The structure has an outer, fresh-air ventilated glass façade, and solar gain is mitigated by automated blinds, which lower themselves automatically in bright sunlight (creating an unexpected “Bond villain’s lair” moment). The rooftop view is surprisingly impressive – Berlin is a not a high-rise city, and even now new construction is largely restricted to a building height of 22 metres.

The attention to detail continues up through the whole of the building, including the casting of the dark grey concrete staircase, the bespoke brass handrails, matching brass door handles and other fittings, and the walls behind the glass lift, where the external engraved pattern is continued. The dark walnut theme that dominates the ground floor also continues through the galeries. Accessed from the second floor picture gallery is a small room with a single fully glazed wall that looks onto the street. The room is furnished only with three concrete cubes, which are also also “engraved” and appear to be cut directly from the façades. They serve here as seats – it is, perhaps, the best space in the building.

To describe a building as a “jewellery box” is a well-worn cliché, but here it is geneuinely applicable, and clearly a concept that the architect had directly in mind, successfully executed. The design gives Berlin’s newest museum a magazine-friendly iconic image, but more importantly a thoughtfully designed home for its collection.

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