Leipzig has long been an incubator of culture, having hosted Goethe, Bach, and Schiller at different points. In the mid-eighteenth century it gained a reputation as the “little Paris of Germany” for its literary scene and many elegant Hinterhöfe (inner courtyards), created by a flourishing bourgeoisie as they constructed opulent stone homes and built substantial art collections. Now a new, resolutely modern art museum aims to honor that past while suggesting a course for future development.
For the last 60 years Leipzig’s economy has been stagnant, first under Communism, then under the challenges of shifting from a state-supported industrial economy to a privately driven service economy. Since German reunification in 1990, many cities in former East Germany have experienced high unemployment rates; Leipzig’s hovers around 17 percent. However, the city has recently gained a reputation as a center for innovative contemporary painting, and art has become a bright spot, helping to propel a halting postreunification renaissance. Young artists graduating from the Leipzig Academy of Fine Arts—who have stayed in the city for its low rents—such as Neo Rauch, Tilo Baumgärtel, and Christoph Rückhäberle, are hotly pursued on the international art market.
Last December Leipzig’s new Museum of Fine Arts (Museum der Bildenden Künste) opened in a $98 million building designed by the relatively untested Berlin-based architecture firm Hufnagel Pütz Rafaelian, which won a competition for the project. The museum was established in 1858 but hasn’t had a permanent home since the Second World War. Filled with major works by European artists of the past 600 years, the new structure attracted 75,000 visitors in the first three months.
While the massive elegant construction is seemingly out of context with the small historic buildings of Leipzig’s old city center, the light-filled 1.8-million-square-foot design pays homage to the town’s past—especially to the Hinterhöfe. From the outside the four-story cube bridges the contrasting styles of the neighboring row of opulent old brownstones and cheap blocky Modernist East German complexes. It is still missing a glass “skin,” which will be applied to the outer steel girder this summer and will hover a meter from the building. Inside, a large atrium filled with blond wood floors deliberately evokes the Hinterhöfe, which have L-shaped passageways connecting them to the street. “The big halls inside the museum are like a transformation of these passageways,” Karl Hufnagel adds. “Our idea is for the inside of the museum to be like an urban space, a kind of town.” Views of both the city and the atrium are possible from balconies on each floor.
Hufnagel Pütz Rafaelian has previously built just three smaller public buildings, most notably a long, low green-glass and stone sports center that opened last summer in Berlin. They have planned for the urban environs to press even closer to the museum over time with a design that allows for privately developed mixed-use buildings to fill in its grassy plaza. Pedestrians would view the museum in slivers through narrow street openings, as if it were inside its own Hinterhöfe. “Ultimately we understand that the museum building is seen more as fragments,” Hufnagel says. “And the site will become a small street with high buildings, which is more typical of Leipzig.”
As an urban revitalization gambit, the design seems to be paying off. “So many people have visited,” museum director Hans-Werner Schmidt says. “The big plan of linking to the city feels realized.”