One look lengthwise in a sun-speckled upper room is all it takes to see a spectrum of ideas at play in Gerhards & Gl'cker's exhibit pieces for the Saxon castle of Albrechtsburg, in eastern Germany.
Here the gaze is drawn into a long silvery vitrine hung soberly with coins and daggers, Latin inscriptions, and Saxon royal seals made from wax and animal hide. Move to one side, and suddenly the highly polished interior looks as if it's made of mirrors, reflecting objects previously hidden from view, picking up the expressions and movements of visitors nearby, and revealing the light, shadow, and shape of the room itself. Look away, and one snaps back into the austere space of a medieval antechamber.
Albrechtsburg, a 540-year-old castle on a hill overlooking the small river town of Meissen, is a short journey from Dresden, an ancient seat of royalty and current capital of the German free state of Saxony. Restored by the former East Germans more than 40 years ago, the castle was open for touring, but there was no museum. So the challenge was twofold when Berlin-based interior architects Carsten Gerhards and Andreas Gl'cker were selected by Saxon state officials in 2008 to create an installation for the 300th-anniversary exhibition of Meissen's famous porcelain, with the condition that their design could transition into a permanent exhibition celebrating the area's history and architecture after it closed. It would be difficult to work within a medieval landmark. Moreover, the architects would have to be disciplined to display historic artifacts in a contemporary and creative way without tipping the scales into something jarring or farcical.
Specialists in working within the constraints of history'they had already completed interiors for the city museum in medieval Trier and for the house of composer Georg Friedrich Handel'the designers spent time learning the history of Albrechtsburg, its porcelain manufacture, and the physical presence of the building with its astounding vaulted ceilings and two spiral staircases, each looking like a string of seashells bound by lithe stone banisters. 'Our strategy became dematerialization,' Gerhards says. 'Rather than materialize the objects on display, we made artifacts which reflect the presence of the building. And the form of those artifacts is informed by the objects, and by what is told in the room.'
To do this, Gerhards and Gl'cker designed more than a dozen polygonal aluminum vitrines, some with angles, some emphasizing vertical lines, at different heights and shapes, engaging rooms without trying to match them. A matte finish on the outside of these display cases softly reflects the surrounding rooms and vaulted ceilings, while a polished interior creates bright exposition spaces and occasional kaleidoscopes.
There are three main levels in the sprawling building, begun in 1471 to eventually house Ernst, Elector of Saxony, and his brother Duke Albrecht the Bold. The permanent exhibit is also split into three sections. One is dedicated to the building designed by master architect Arnold of Westphalia. Another is devoted to politics, power, and life in the Saxon kingdom. And the third showcases the porcelain Meissen began producing in 1710, first within Albrechtsburg itself and later at a nearby factory.
Even though the first level houses the Grand Hall, with the most complex archwork, it makes sense to begin a tour from the top, on the more austere third floor. This is where the building exhibits are located, as well as a model of the floor plan. The space itself is not linear, allowing visitors to flow from room to room, where they'll find such artifacts as a high-tech aluminum 'periscope' that not only reveals the rafters but provides data overlay on the types of beams and joints the builders used to support the structure. Engaging multimedia and 3-D relief installations, also designed by the architects, complement the gleaming vitrines. 'All the time we use these materials as mirrors to show details on the ceiling or behind,' Gl'cker says.
The new permanent exhibition does more than trade on the castle's architectural grandeur for awe. Gerhards & Gl'cker's displays for Albrechtsburg Meissen generate movement and living moments. There is a quiet conversation between the historic walls and sculptural quality of the 21st-century forms. And the mirrorlike finishes within the vitrines produce dazzling Modernist perspectives upon the centuries-old objects. A communion of time, the installation ultimately emphasizes the wonders of the existing surrounding structure, a model of innovative thinking that in its time set European standards for spatial structure, vaulting, windows, and staircase design.
Completion Date: May 2011
Gross Square Footage: 53,820 sq.ft.
Architect and Designer:
Gerhards & Gl'cker
Leuschnerdamm 13, 10999 Berlin
Tel +49 (0)30 24 72 38 17
Fax +49 (0)30 24 72 38 19
Client: Staatliche Schlösser, Burgen und Gärten Sachsen (National Fortresses, Castles, and Gardens of Saxony)
Architect and Designer:
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Photographer(s): Amit Geron Photography
Exhibition elements: barth – building interior architecture, Brixen (Italy)
Graphic / Silkscreening: Eicher Werkstätten, Kernen im Remstal (Germany)Lighting: Lichtbau, Berlin (Germany)