Berlin is often spoken of in terms of the buildings erected in recent years, and rightly so, since in the 1990s it was the largest building site in the world, whose interventions are still talked about. But above all the town offers art-lovers another container, built in the far-off 1960s: the Neue Nationalgalerie by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe Designed in 1962, the new art gallery is situated near the Tiergarten park and Potzdamer Strasse, in that part of West Berlin which underwent a transformation in those years, restorations to repair the still-evident damage caused by the Second World War. This German architect who had emigrated to the United States was asked by the Berlin administration to build the new exhibition building when he was almost 80 years of age and was already working on a museum for the small town of Schwainfurt. In view of the importance of the Berlin project he immediately abandoned the preliminary studies for Schwainfurt and concentrated on what was to be his last work. For those who do not know the work of Mies Van der Rohe, he might be summed up in the definition “the master of the contemporary”. Less is more is his architectural legacy, a concept borrowed about fifty years later from the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) who had already expounded it very effectively, and who with his 1908 book Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and crime) had founded European rationalism. Going back to “Mies”, as he was informally called by his collaborators, architects and designers, we cannot but agree and (even before describing it) affirm that his last completed work is his concrete manifesto and one of the finest of his long career. It is a symmetrical parallelepiped with a 50-metre square ground plan, wholly built of steel frames and with walls completely made of glass. The whole building covers a total surface of approximately 5000 square metres, half of which is concentrated on the ground floor, the only visible part, the other half on the underground area, visible only from behind. The large entrance hall to the museum is flooded with light and is used for the consecutive three-monthly temporary exhibitions.
The volume above the ground is surmounted by the large flat roof measuring 65 metres at the side. It is raised 8 metres above the ground and consists of a square-mesh criss-cross pattern of steel girders entirely supported by 8 cruciform pillars (Mies’ trademark); these are placed in such a way as to create a kind of suspension of the roof, which has become the emblematic feature of the whole architectural structure. The contrast created between the large raised steel mass and the glass walls is amplified by the fact that there are no supporting pillars at the corners, thus rendering the complex very light despite the use of the huge steel girders. In this work, the German architect reinterprets the idea of the Greek Parthenon. This building too stands on a raised base and the columns are idealised and stripped bare. All of the author’s creative designing energy can be found in the details; like a modern engraver he concentrates his attention on the key points of the construction. The completely-transparent walls allow complete interaction of the visitor with the town, at the same time efficaciously and successfully maintaining a neutral relationship with the works on display. In the hall the space is dilated as in a landscape, and the container becomes a discrete element ready to reveal its essence in the cross-points of the beams, the attachment of the pillars to the ground, those few elements which in fact take on and trigger a huge vibration of the material, just because of their limited variability. This is a type of architecture which in the crucial area, the basement, does not manifest any particular building elements, because the visitor’s attention must be concentrated on the works exhibited, mainly 20th-century art with authors like Picasso, Daĺ, de Chirico, Paul Klee. The light in this second level is prevalently artificial, except in the area which communicates with the garden, from which sculptures by contemporary artists can be admired. In this his last work, Mies has highlighted and revealed the power and poetry of minimalism, a term which many often self-styled pseudo-experts on the subject use nowadays without really understanding its deep meaning.