It’s been a busy month so I was glad when the opportunity came to visit the new museum by John Pawson in Berlin. The Feuerle Collection is a private museum that showcases artwork accumulated over the years by the private collector Désiré Feuerle. The collection consists of Imperial Chinese furniture and Southeast Asian antiquity that is cleverly combined with contemporary art and photography.
The Museum reclaims an old WW2 telecommunications bunker and adds to the already rich portfolio of refurbished bunkers in Berlin. The project was completed last year so there was some anticipation up to the visit and I’m glad to say that the architectural project and museum meet and surpass expectations.
For those that have followed my work with The Dark Art, you may know that John Pawson is an important reference of ours as we have used some of his work as positive examples for the use of darkness in lighting design, the most prominent being the Stone House, a temporary installation designed in 2010 for the Interni Think Tank Exhibition in Milan.
The museum tour begins in a darkroom completely void of light. The visitors are warned in advance that they will be entering the darkroom as it can be unsettling for those who fear darkness or who are claustrophobic. The darkroom is a preparation for what is about to come. Once inside, a calming music is played and the tour guide explains that the prelude to help the visitors decompress and prepare themselves for the exhibit. The experience is indeed relaxing and lasts a few minutes however I have strong suspicions that there is an ulterior motive to it.
Although the mental and emotional decompression exercise indeed plays an important roll in how the museum is experienced; my suspicions are that the darkroom is a preparation period to allow the visitors sufficient eye adaptation to the low lighting levels. The lit environment of the museum is quite dark so if visitors suddenly entered from the daylit environment outside, they would be unable to adequately see the exhibit. It’s a touch of genius that also has a tremendously positive impact on the overall experience.
The Dark Room is also the only location where the tour guide intervenes. Besides time control and their availability for questions, visitors are allowed to walk freely and uninterrupted throughout the space. The tour is divided into 2 large rooms without partitions: starting in the basement room where you spend the 1st half, from which you are then transferred after 30 minutes into the 2nd room on the ground floor.
The artworks and objects are displayed without any written information. As explained by the tour guide, the intent is simply that the art be experienced. The museum’s view is that the act of reading is taking you away from the experience itself.
Once inside, what one encounters is an architecture and lighting design that are entirely focused on the objects on display. The room is very dark, almost difficult to see, and even when you do pay more attention to it, the interiors are completely void of finishes and decoration with the original bare aged concrete and building structure truthfully exposed.
Great care was given to the lighting of the museum. It is a project that takes contrast and focus to a new level. Many artworks are lit with precise silhouetted beams, e.g. the photography displayed on the wall is lit with a rectangular beam that perfectly fits the silhouette of the frame. This draws our full attention to the artwork, as there are no distractions with the darkened surroundings.
What pleases me, even more, is the great care that was given to darkness. The overall experience would not have been possible in a brighter space. However, it’s not only the lighting levels that are worth highlighting as even the cast shadows play an important role in the lighting design. Many of the spotlights (the ones that are not silhouetted) are positioned in such a way that they cast shadows onto surfaces that contribute to the overall composition. The most obvious example is the columns located behind the objects displayed. Because you are allowed to walk freely, including behind the artwork on display, this detail adds another layer to the overall experience.
And finally: the Interior Lake. The lake is reminiscent of the original site conditions as they were found when John Pawson and Désiré Feuerle visited the site for the 1st time. As was explained in the preparation room, during their visit they encountered flooding in the basement. John Pawson decided to maintain the water and dedicated a significant portion of the basement to it.
The lake has an interesting effect in the overall museum environment as the water surface emphasizes the calmness that is experienced. But even here, nothing was left to chance as artificial ripples are created on the water surface to bring life to it. The ripples are extremely soft and almost unnoticeable. I will even say that it is almost unbelievable that they are not natural; if it were not for the tour guide answering my very specific question, I would have been convinced. The ripples create a subtle play of light as the water surface reflects and refracts the interior. Another great example of John Pawson’s fabulous work.
During the tour, there were some spaces that were not yet complete such as the Inscence Room. I can only imagine the intensity one must be able to smell when we are void of light and vision. This experience alone is a good reason to return to the museum.
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