By Jakob Harry Hybel
Built on the ruins of the Gothic Church of St. Columba in the old center of Cologne, not far from the city’s spectacular cathedral, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum stands as an equally uplifting and melancholic testament to the glorious and the bleak chapters of the city’s past.
Peter Zumthor belongs to a rare breed of architects. Universally revered for his attention to detail, he religiously believes – like the old bauhaus masters that schooled him – in the architect as a craftsman. As with Zumthor himself, the location of most of his works, are notoriously recluse. The Kolumba Museum is the exception.
Throughout the history of Cologne, since the earliest Roman settlements, churches have stood on the site where the Kolumba Museum stands today. In medieval times, when the Saint Kolumba parish was Cologne’s largest and most dominant the splendid Kolumba Church was built to properly demonstrate the power of the parish. It stood until 1943, where the site was tragically demolished – along with the rest of the city – by the allied air strike. Since then, the ruins were largely left untouched, with the exception of a small octogonal chapel built in 1949 by local architect Gottfried Böhm in rememberance of the devastating bombing.
It might appear to be hopeless to reconcile these many layers of history, but it seems Zumthor chose to to see it as a challenge and he has intelligently managed to add to the architectural continuum, while keeping and embracing the pre-existing fragments.
A Mysterious, Timeless Space
The building does not reveal a lot from the outside. Apart from a series of holes puncturing the facades halfway up and some large, square windows, it appears to be a closed box of slender and neatly aligned light grey bricks. But entering from the foyer into the main room of the museum’s lower level, everything falls into place.
The walls are windowless apart from the perforations lining the top, casting filtered light into the double height room. A zigzagging pathway guides you through the archaeological excavations between slim concrete columns pinning up the ceiling. As you stand amidst the room with all layers of history exposed, protected by the outer walls that gently wraps everything together, there is a serene calmness and odd timelessness.
Following the pathway will lead you to a small ceilingless atrium where Richard Serra’s sculpture The Drowned and the Saved (Die Verschwundenen und Gerettete) is placed on top of a crypt containing mortal remains found during the excavations. It is a fitting end to the narrative of the site and its past, almost like a punctuation mark.
A Museum Like No Other
Back at the foyer, a narrow staircase takes you upstairs to the art exhibit, where the collection of the Archdiocese, who commissioned the museum, is at show. Here, the exhibition rooms are subdued in color and scale with white concrete walls and polished floors. The only abruption comes in the form of the large window sections that beautifully frames selected views of the city.
Here it becomes very clear – if there was at a point any doubt – that Kolumba is no ordinary museum. Icons and religious statues are standing shoulder to shoulder with contemporary art installations – and as if this is not confusing in itself, the visitors are left completely to their own devices, as there is no accompanying text to be found.
This must have posed a considerable challenge to the museum’s curators, but they have skillfully managed to draw thematic lines throughout the exhibit – and in doing so, they offer new perspectives on the way we are accustomed to looking at art, it challenges the sometimes narrow scope of our frame of reference.
Zumthor, an outspoken opposer of the so-called Bilbao effect, the notion that a museum should be a marketing instrument to brand either the city or the architect (or both), chose to work on this project because of its apparent refusal to adhere to the trends of today’s museum world. As he said at the museum opening:
|[Here] you feel that the project was started from the inside, from the art and from the place.|
Indeed it does. You feel the desire shared between client and architect to create something unique, something more than the museum itself. A place that speaks to all the senses. A place as evocative as it is intellectually and physically stimulating.