Konkreter Poet
© Simon Menges

Sir Concrete

  • INTERVIEW PATRICK HEIDMANN

David Chipperfield’s James-Simon-Galerie stands out and blends in on Berlin’s Museum Island. The British architect spoke with Lufthansa Magazin in advance of the gallery’s opening.

The James-Simon-Galerie designed by David Chipperfield opens on Berlin’s Museum Island on July 12. The building is the new central access point for five major museums. The British star architect opted for sublimely clean lines, colonnades and flights of steps – his contemporary interpretation of elements of Classical architecture. His ideas, as he says in the interview, do not come to him “at night over a bottle of whisky,” instead, they are born of dialogue, teamwork and complex processes. Lufthansa Magazin spoke with him on site about architecture, quality of life in Berlin and young parents’ talent for organization.

Sir David, what’s special about the James-Simon-Galerie?

First of all, it was a challenge to find the right architectural idiom for a building that would form part of such an important historical ensemble. And plus, it’s not just an entrance building, but the connecting element between the individual museums – and also an additional venue for events on the museum island.

The gallery took two decades to plan and build, and your ­Berlin office celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. How important is time to you?

It’s true that time sometimes stands still in architecture. The processes are always protracted. As an architect, you have to learn to deal with that and to make the most of it. Architecture is not like painting, where a momentary dynamic arises between thought and canvas. Although in the end, it is perhaps even less a question of time than of processes: permits, approvals, fine tuning with clients, construction companies, suppliers – these mechanisms, from the idea to the finished building, are what make the job of an architect unique.

With offices all over the world and many projects to oversee, you are always on the move. How much do you travel as a rule?

I certainly move from one place to the next twice a week and am rarely longer than three days in any one place.

What do you need to be able to enjoy traveling?

Routine. It’s easier to travel if you know your way around, repeatedly use the same airports. It has a lot to do with habits. When I’m away, for instance, I always go to the same place for a coffee, eat the same salad at Zurich Airport. That way, you form habits. I don’t like having to hurry. It’s a very different matter when I board a plane with my family: That’s always far more enjoyable.

Konkreter Poet
© Ute Zscharnt für David Chipperfield Architects
Konkreter Poet
© Ute Zscharnt für David Chipperfield Architects
Konkreter Poet

This way to art: the upper lobby of the James-Simon-Galerie

© Ute Zscharnt für David Chipperfield Architects

Will an answer to the housing question be found in the cities or the countryside?

We certainly neglected the periphery for a while and focused too much on urban developments. The exodus of young people from rural areas is a European problem that we need to address. And whatever solution we find is unlikely to satisfy everyone. It will be important to concentrate on something like quality of life and with the timeframe of the next 30 years in mind. I think the upcoming generations will define themselves less by their work environment and be much more flexible.

What does quality of life mean to you?

As an architect, I would say it’s the quality of a place. Berlin stands as a kind of metaphor for that because it is surprising that Berlin, which can be pretty ugly, is so popular. Its popularity is not based on wealth, a prospering economy or good job prospects, but on its particular quality of life – even if people are worried that this could soon be lost thanks to Berlin’s ever-increasing popularity. We need to be clearer in our minds about the growing importance of leisure time. Consumerism, on the other hand, needs to become less important. We cannot continue to consume on the same level as we have to date. There is a quality of life beyond material things.

What does it take for you to feel at home?

My family, familiar everyday things … (considers). The notion of “home” is a little tricky. We are often in Berlin for quite a stretch, but also in London. And we’ve had a house on the Spanish coast for 25 years. I guess I feel most at home there – because everything is very simple and uncomplicated.

Do you work there, as well?

Yes, there’s a studio there, too, and we’ve been working with the town on environmental projects for a long time. What I particularly like there is that the people have a clearer system of values. Quality of life is less dependent on complex things. Friends, who visit us there, but also my family and I – we all feel inspired by the simplicity of shared life.

Konkreter Poet
© Ute Zscharnt für David Chipperfield Architects
Konkreter Poet

Concrete elegance: Chipperfield's Hepworth Museum in Wakefield, England (2011)

© Simon Menges
Konkreter Poet

The Royal Academy extension in London (2018)

© Simon Menges

to be honest, I don’t cope at all well with criticism

David Chipperfield, architect

How does David Chipperfield work best?

I need time, a quiet place, perhaps some music. If I have a few hours to spare, it’s good to mull things over. But architecture is teamwork. You don’t sit with a bottle of whisky on the table designing a building overnight. That’s impossible. You can perhaps solve a problem on your own or sketch out a concept, but everything else is born of dialogue.

How do you cope with criticism?

To be honest, not well at all. I do my best not to take it personally, but it’s hard. I can deal with criticism that’s professional, well thought through, but what you see in social media … Sometimes I make the mistake of reading not just an article about our work but also the comments underneath, as well: so venomous! Social media seems to encourage people to express base, hurtful thoughts. You can simply ignore them. But it can also be very painful.

As an architect, do you have a role model?

The architect’s profession is divided into two groups: There are the “studio architects,” people like Álvaro Siza, whom I greatly admire, who produce very fine, artistic work with just a handful of staff. And there are architects like Renzo Piano, who take on major projects with large teams. Both work on very different scales and have their respective qualities. In our offices, we try to foster a creative studio atmosphere, but we still want to be able to think and work on large-scale projects.

Where do you stand on the current feminist debate?

I believe the time has come to correct the way things are often seen from a western European male perspective. Women are neither better nor worse architects than men. We have parents working at our office in Berlin, some of them part time. They are amazingly well organized and often use their time better than other people, and that benefits our office.

You have four children yourself. What have you learned from them?

(smiles) They keep my feet firmly on the ground.