Kolumba – Köln
Kolumba is a museum on ancient and modern art in Cologne housed in a famous building designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
The Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne (German: Kunstmuseum des Erzbistums Köln), the precursor of Kolumba, was founded in 1853 as a museum dedicated to religious art, from Early Christian Times onwards, housed in the former Archbishop’s Palace and adjacent to the city’s Cathedral.
The museum was almost destroyed, together with a large part of the city, by the Allies’ bombings during World War Two. Nevertheless, most of the collection, previously evacuated in the Westerwald forest, survived the war and the museum reopened in 1954, although in rather inadequate and insufficient rooms.
The Kolumba Museum, photo by Ralf Neugebauer
The city of Cologne in 1944, aerial photo; the site where the Kolumba is now located in on the right of the Cathedral, one of the few building which remained relatively undamaged after the bombing
Aerial view of the museum’s site today, photo by Lutz Szepoks
Peter Zumthor’s building
In the early 1990s, the Diocese decided to build a new home for the museum and, in 1997, organized an international design competition, eventually appointing Swiss architect Peter Zumthor (b. 1943) for the design of the new building. The site chosen was that of the medieval Chapel of St. Columba (German: Marienkapelle St. Kolumba), not far from the Cologne Cathedral. Also, the original chapel was badly damaged during the war and replaced by a modern chapel in 1950, only parts of the original Romanesque-Gothic structure were retained.
Completed in 2007, Zumthor’s project skillfully combines contemporary architecture with the remains of the old medieval constructions, including those of the St. Columba chapel from which the museum took its new name, and the new chapel built in the 1950s.
Although with a quite articulated footprint, the building designed by Zumthor is definitely linear in elevation; the overall effect is that of a contemporary architecture subtly reminiscent of the historical aspect of the old city of Cologne, with its narrow merchant houses.
The plans were designed having in mind the complex ensemble of functions of the museum, which accommodates galleries for both ancient and modern art, temporary exhibition rooms, a library, excavations where remains of the original medieval buildings can be visited, places of worship, and an open-air contemplation courtyard and garden located in the middle of the building.
Kolumba, floor plans, and sections; images © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner
Architectural model of the Kolumba, © Dam und Peter Zumthor, Dumeng Raffainer, photo Hagen Stier
Encompassing a total floor area of 1,750 square meters / 19,000 square feet, the sixteen exhibition rooms of the Kolumba are usually dim-lighted, almost private, gray spaces with polished concrete floors, conceived to underline the exposed artworks, and providing a general sensation of quietness and timeless permanence.
Interior views of the museum, photos by fcamusd
Along with an art museum, the Kolumba was indeed intended to be an ode to peace and life (in Latin, columba means dove, a traditional Christian symbol of peace).
The use of materials is truly notable, Zumthor conceived perforated brickwork facades, made in light-gray bricks handcrafted in Denmark, as a means to incorporate the medieval remains into a coherent whole, therefore establishing a dialogue between old and new architecture.
Photos by Jaime Silva
Photo by Timothy Brown
Facade detail, photo by Ben Scicluna
Art collection and exhibitions
The collection of the Kolumba is composed of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, textiles, dresses, precious objects and jewels, manuscripts, and works of decorative arts, dating from antiquity to the present but with a strong focus on medieval art from German-speaking countries.
Modern and contemporary pieces in the museum’s collection include works by Joseph Beuys, Paul Thek, Louise Bourgeois, Leiko Ikemura, Rebecca Horn, Attila Kovács, Wolfgang Laib, Thomas Lehnerer, Joseph Marioni, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, Chris Newman, Richard Tuttle, Jannis Kounellis, and Darío Villalba, among others.
Only a few pieces from the collection are permanently on view, while the museum displays most of its patrimony through long-term temporary exhibitions which juxtapose ancient and modern artworks side by side, following changing subjects and viewpoints, and creating a dialogue between the collection and the memory of the observer. Sometimes the museum also organizes solo exhibitions dedicated to major artists, such as those on Richard Serra (1997), Andy Warhol (1999), Leiko Ikemura (2012), and Bruno Jakob (2014).
View of the museum’s galleries, photo by Christian Wendling
A vestment belonged to Cardinal Josef Frings, photo by René Spitz
Photo by fcamusd
Photo by Clara Alim
The medieval remains, the 1950 chapel and the new building side by side, photo by Jose Fernando Velasquez
View of the “contemplation garden”, photo by fcamusd
Cover image: view of the museum from the south-east, photo by Hélène Binet, courtesy of Kolumba
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copyright Inexhibit 2020 - ISSN: 2283-5474