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Finely drawn

Tchoban Foundation’s Museum of Architectural Drawing counterposes the robust stone massing of the building with the delicate reproduced etchings of the drawings it houses. It is archive, celebration and lifeblood for a disappearing art

Set within a square of former industrial warehouses, the Tchoban Foundation’s building is a strong formal presence
Set within a square of former industrial warehouses, the Tchoban Foundation’s building is a strong formal presence Credit: Patricia Parinejad

The first glimpse from the street is striking: huge stone blocks, each carved with intricate hieroglyphs, are stacked against the end of a 19th century Berlin terrace. On closer inspection, the blocks become a building, with each floor level presenting a massive solidity, contrasting only with the top floor – an entirely glazed box that reflects and merges with the sky.

This is the Tchoban Foundation’s Museum of Architectural Drawing, a small and in every sense personal work by architects Sergei Tchoban and Sergey Kuznetsov of SPEECH Tchoban & Kuznetsov. The Foundation will house Sergei Tchoban’s own collection of (currently) around 600 drawings, and the architect has designed every detail, down to the door handles and furniture. The foundation aims to show three exhibitions a year from other collections, lending some of its own in return. The present display is of beautiful drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, on loan from Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which in turn is showing a selection from the Tchoban. The foundation’s archive ranges from the 16th century to the present, from Cerceau to Gehry, as well as Tchoban’s own drawings. It aims to promote the use of architectural drawing –  increasingly a lost art, and a subject close to Sergei Tchoban’s heart.

The building’s form and orientation were carefully considered, as was the use of enlarged fragments of drawings from the collection (the ‘hieroglyphs’) on the facades: ‘This specific corner lot was chosen to accommodate the foundation, since it allowed for the distinctly sculptural appearance of the building. The contrast of fine architectural drawings and the three-dimensional composition of volumes expresses the special relationship between drawing and construction,’ says Tchoban. It alludes to the fact that the drawings on thin paper sheets are seen as rather delicate, sensitive and of course 2D objects whereas built architecture is much more robust, larger in scale and, in a sense, archaic. Yet, the building derives from the drawing.’

The internal detailing of the Tchoban Foundation is all bespoke, giving the sense of a private members’ club
The internal detailing of the Tchoban Foundation is all bespoke, giving the sense of a private members’ club
The monolithic theme set on the outside continues internally; the staircase detailing in concrete, glass and brass  alludes to Scarpa
The monolithic theme set on the outside continues internally; the staircase detailing in concrete, glass and brass alludes to Scarpa

The five storeys plus basement contain two small picture galleries, a storage room for the rest of the collection, a reception area and a fifth floor office with two large roof-top balconies. For its size, the building’s volumetry is more complex than it first appears: each storey-height ‘block’ has a slightly different orientation or shape, with small cantilevers; and a larger cantilever for the glass box of the fifth floor. Unlike most efforts to make glass buildings ‘dissolve’ in the sky, from certain angles this one really does, with the occasional puzzling reflection of a brick chimney or two. Tchoban describes the cantilevered glass upper storey as the ‘crest’ of the building, ‘creating a relationship between corpus and top that is characteristic of European architecture.’ The glass signals the functional difference of the top floor, and creates a beacon of light at night.

The new building stands on the perimeter of the former Pfefferberg brewery, an extensive complex of 19th century red brick buildings now converted into other functions, most notably the Aedes architecture gallery/campus, and the multi-storey workshop and office of artist Olafur Eliasson (his building directly abuts that of the museum, and some of his works-in-progress can be glimpsed through adjacent windows). Surprisingly, the minimalist, irregular form fits comfortably among its neighbours, helped in part by the exuberant range of 19th century styles around it (the brewery itself crashes neogothic with industrial, then competes with the wedding-cake stucco of the surrounding street facades). It also helps that sleek minimalist residential interventions are a familiar sight in this highly gentrified district in the former east Berlin.

 

Gallery walls painted in stripes of ox blood reference gallery colour schemes of the 19th century
Gallery walls painted in stripes of ox blood reference gallery colour schemes of the 19th century

A small criticism would be that the scattering of irregular window openings at ground level and to the rear elevation overpowers the facade engravings whose lines they follow. The windows’ flush glazing is very dark in contrast with the sandstone-like finish, and somehow detracts from the illusion that this might be a building hewn from solid stone.

The etching of the exterior cladding is reflected internally in the entrance area. Bespoke shelving and walls suggest a private study, doubled in scale by the mirrored ceiling
The etching of the exterior cladding is reflected internally in the entrance area. Bespoke shelving and walls suggest a private study, doubled in scale by the mirrored ceiling

‘The museum is open to the public, although the atmosphere on entering is one of hushed privacy: a private members’ club, finished almost entirely in dark wood’

Motifs derived from the drawing collection continue inside the building: on the longest wall of the entrance room they are inscribed into walnut-veneered full height panels. The museum is open to the public, although the atmosphere on entering is one of hushed privacy: a private members’ club, finished almost entirely in dark wood. Bespoke glass display cases along one wall are already stacked with architectural tomes. The only daylight is filtered through a number of small, irregular shaped, obscure-glazed openings. 

The two gallery rooms have no natural daylight (due to the sensitivity of the collection), with low level lighting and, at the time of writing, muted red and grey colour schemes that echo those at the Soane, and underpin the greys and reds of Piranesi’s beautiful drawings.

The top floor office level, by contrast, is an explosion of light: glazed on three sides, with two deep balconies. The structure has an outer, fresh-air ventilated glass facade, and solar gain is mitigated by automated blinds that lower automatically in bright sunlight (creating an unexpected ‘Bond villain’s lair’ moment). The view is surprisingly impressive – Berlin is a not a high-rise city, and new construction is still largely restricted to a building height of 22m.

The attention to detail continues through the whole building, including the casting of the dark grey concrete staircase, bespoke brass handrails, matching brass door handles and other fittings, and the walls behind the glass lift, where the external engraved pattern appears again. The dark walnut theme of the ground floor also flows through the galleries. Accessed from the second floor picture gallery is a small room with a single fully glazed wall that looks onto the street. It is furnished with only three concrete cubes, which are also  ‘engraved’ and appear to be cut directly from the facades. They serve as seats – it is, perhaps, the best space in the building.

To describe a building as a ‘jewellery box’ is a well-worn cliché, but here it is genuinely applicable, and clearly a concept the architect had directly in mind, successfully executed. Berlin’s newest museum has a magazine-friendly iconic image, but, more importantly, a thoughtfully designed home for its contents.