The German building that brings a legacy to life

Article by Natasha Stokes
Stadel museum in Frankfurt
Image credit: Städel Museum via Wikimedia Commons

“To me, this building is outstanding for the way it melds the different epochs of Germany.”

For Konstantin Kortmann, Head of Residential Investment at JLL Germany, Frankfurt’s Städel Museum shows how an act of citizenship centuries ago can create something which is still valuable and relevant to a modern city.

Back in the 19th-century, banker Johann Städel dedicated his fortune and sizeable art collection to founding an institute that would educate the people of his city about art. Originally housed in Städel’s own home after his death in 1815, the artworks were eventually given their own space – in the Städel Museum, constructed in 1880 on the banks of the River Main.

Having survived two wars, a year’s closure and a bombing, today, it is Germany’s oldest museum foundation – and with two major extensions in 1990 and 2012, it is also an architectural ode to eras past.

“You can see its history as you walk around the building,” Kortmann says. At its main entrance, the Städel is the classical 19th-century construction with a grand stone facade buttressed by stately columns. Along the Holbeinstrasse end is its minimal, white 1990s extension with few, high-set windows. By these expansive walls lies the great lawn of the Städel, studded with over 30 circular panes of glass – skylights into the subterranean gallery housing modern art and photography, completed in 2015 to commemorate the museum’s 200th anniversary.

Built to preserve

Inside the building, which houses European collections from the 14th century onwards, the effect can be equally striking. “Take the original wing, you have the feel of the 19th century – marble stairs and columns, wood floors and colourful walls with golden-framed paintings from the Impressionisists and Italian classicists,” Kortmann says.

Yet much like with art itself, opinion on the interior design remains divided. “Some say the interior has not matched what is promised from the outside, because the architecture is a bit undecided,” Kortmann says. “But it has been an intelligent way to use existing stock to create more space – and without losing the museum’s heritage.”

Instead of demolishing existing features to make room for the new, each extension to the Städel was built to accommodate what was already there. “The concept for its expansions has been focused on preservation. Take the modern wing – by digging into the earth to create the gallery, the soil above can be used as a natural insulator to keep heating costs down,” Kortmann says. “Because the land was disturbed as little as possible, it can also continue to absorb rainwater, reducing the possibility of the riverbanks flooding.”

Shaping a modern landmark

The people responsible for the building have left an enduring legacy for modern day Frankfurt. “The Städel has been led by many visionary museum directors, one of whom was [eventual Director-General of Frankfurt museums] Georg Swarzenski, the first large-scale buyer of the French impressionist artists,” Kortmann says.

Swarzenski, who was of Jewish background, fled Germany in 1938 as the country, under the National Socialists,started the persecution of its Jewish population.. In this period, 77 of the museum’s paintings were classified as “degenerate art” and confiscated, and by 1939, a greater part of the collection had to be evacuated. In 1943 the museum closed; a year later, it was partially destroyed by bombs.

For the Städel, the end of the Second World War was followed by nearly 20 years of reconstruction and rebuilding the collection. “US forces, the famous monument men, also returned many of the paintings that had been taken from murdered or expelled citizens. Some of the paintings that had to be sold under Nazi regime were re-acquired and in addition to the remaining stock these were used to start a post-war education exhibition within the museum,” Kortmann explains.

In 1984, a civic cultural initiative started to turn the riverbanks of the Main into Frankfurt’s famous “Musumsufer” (‘riverbank of the museums’), which nowadays comprises 12 museums. The Städel museum decided to follow Johann Städel’s original directive – to provide access to art for all. As the Städel grew in prominence, a park was created around it, and the Museumsufer’s rundown buildings were converted into cultural destinations – the German Film Museum, Architectural Museum and Jewish Museum, among others.

“The Städel has regenerated a whole area,” Kortmann says. “It’s the nucleus for the ‘Museumsufer, and its story is the story of the whole of Germany.”

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