Architectually Speaking

The Hombroich foundation in Germany signifies a complex initiative. The privatelyfounded Museum insel is embedded in a caref u 1 ly- restored landscape in the heart of Hombroich. in 1994 the museum managed to acquire an ex-NATO base, a rocket station in the immediate neighbourhood. The site was renovated between 1994 and 1995. in distinction to the Museum insel, a place where works of art are shown to a public, the rocket station is now a place where visual artists, poets, composers, musicians and scientists work. it can be seen as a cultural laboratory where the idea of bringing together different interests in order to create an atmosphere of mutual dialoque and stimulation is the underlying spirit.

Hombroich is the historic name of the site. Broich, the ending of the word, means the moor and marshland in this case along the small river Erft located between Cologne and Dosseldorf. The culturally-rich area is of historic significance dating back to Roman times. in the early nineteenth century an industrialist bought the former mooriand and turned the surrounding area into a landscape garden following an English model. in changing the natural flow of the river, he established the isle of Hombroich where he built a country house.

When Kari Heinrich Mdlier, the founder of the initiative, came across the site in 1982, the old landscape park with its remarkable variety of old and exotic trees and little hidden gardens had turned into a jungle. Maller, a patron of the arts, had been looking for a place that could house his art collection. The sculptor Erwin Heerich and Mdiler wanted to consciously break with most aspects of contemporary museum architecture. Heerich represents a sculptors‘ approach to architecture and his buildings are walk-in sculptures. His idea was to build a sequence of small and larger galleries imbedded in the park. According to the old flow of the river, a lake-land that brings the landscape back to a pre-Roman state was dug out. Ninety old willow trees have been planted along the lakes that are now home to numerous frogs, songbirds, water birds, fish, dragonflies and mayflies that had completely disappeared in the area. This is a romantic place where the circle of regeneration and degeneration is emphasised by a minimal amount of human intervention.

From 1985 to 1993, 11 walk-in sculptures by Erwin Heerich were erected often by only a few workers that carefully inserted the structures into the framework of river, lakes and huge trees. Some buildings are, and will remain, empty, functioning only as walk-in sculptures. But the two historic buildings, together with most of Erwin Heerich’s buildings, provide an area of 5500 m‘ of exhibition space. The museum’s collection of historic and modern art from different cultures and periods is displayed without any classification of style or era. Different characters and epochs are juxtaposed. There are no labels, tities of works or information indicating the names of artists or periods – thus allowing the exhibits to speak for themselves.

The pavilions demonstrate how simple but essential sculptural decisions lead to intense spatial effects. The deliberate use of building materials carries through the whole museum. Thick heavy walls, outside of brick, are inside smoothly plastered and painted white. Opaleseent glass roofs and white marble floors create a clear, intense, crisp white light. There is no additional electric lighting, no climate control and no other atmospherical ly-d istu rbing technical device except for an invisible floor-heating system that keeps the space from freezing in winter. The geometrical ly-composed buildings are clad with brick material that comes from demolished old houses and that communicate well with the environment and the traditional building materials used in the area. Also, the buildings seek the exploration of acoustic phenomenon as each little noise one makes will result in a spectacularly long fading tone.

Some of the buildings are today nearly invisible, being surrounded by dense beech hedges and bushes. When crossing a gateway through a hedge, one finds oneself in a long passageway, determined by the suddenly appearing brick wall of the building at one side, the hedge on the other, gravel below and sky above. The sequence of passing through green walls, a brick wall and then following an inner path to the unknown creates a hermetic quality. Being more complex structures, the larger galleries can only be perceived step by step, composed of a sequence of meandering rooms. If the buildings were empty, the repetitive sequence of rooms would cause the orientation to be completely disturbed. As exhibits become the points of orientation in an environment, where spatial elements are constantly recurring, they seem to have a strength of presence that one rarely experiences. Exhibition architecture and the exhibited works of art seem to intensify one another.

As opposed to most newly-built museums, where mainly cultural politicians, art historians, curators and architects are involved in the planning, the process and growth of the ingel Hombroich was mainly determined by artists. The uncompromising clarity and directness in which the collection is displayed is manifestly a r,esult of this. it feels most agreeable to see the works displayed in a light intensity chosen by criteria of visual artists – and that consciously sacrifices the various technical standards and restrictions that insurers on the one hand, and restorers on thb other, would dictate. in a contemporary context, it is sad to find that once again such pathbreaking decisions are left to artists.

The idea of the museum embedded in nature is, however, not new. The approach of the Kroeller Moeller Museum in Otterloo in the Netheriands as well as the Louisiana Museum in Hummelbaek, Denmark, were in many ways an inspiration for the insel. But in the clarity of expression Hombroich is more radical and goes beyond ideas of its mentors and guides. Also the idea of expanding the museum by the newly-acquired rocket station where people work in a cultural laboratory points in a new direction.

Located about one mile across the fields from the insel, the „Raketenstation“ is a culminating point from where one can overlook 50 m‘ of the surrounding area. The former Nato site was designed to launch missiles during the Cold War. The missile-storage buildings, personal shelters and missile-assemblage buildings were left by the American technicians and Beigian guard troops about two years before the museum was to take over the plant in 1994. When we entered the place for the first time, it was surrounded by several fences, barbed wire and lamp posts. The buildings were empty and vandalised. The atmosphere was cold and threatening – it was hard to believe that it could become part of the romantic river island in the neighbourhood.

Our basic aim in the renovation of the military structures was to transform the hostility into a calm expression of neutrality. We didn’t want to cover up the fact that it was an army site, and kept that general layout as a reminder. The numerous barracks, hangars and halls where turned into functional and simple spaces that were to serve as studios and workspaces equipped with ruiining water, heating and good natural lighting. All the buildings were clad with camouflage screens of asbestos cement. We removed this material and replaced it with galvanised steel throughout the whole rocket station in order to keep the structure that was aiready there unified as it was before.

Soon after the renovation of the rocket station was completed, about eight visual artists were invited to work in the new studio spaces, as well as a composer, a poet and a group of scientists – to create a wider spectrum of interdisciplinary activity than the typical „artist in residence“ model. The people that were given spaces were chosen un bureaucratically since many of them had been engaged in various activities of the Museum insel before. Opposed to a typical residency programme, the people here have been offered the use of the facilities for at least 5-10 years.

The rocket station is now due to grow further. A number of artists and architects have been invited to develop structures that could house future activities. Erwin Heerich is currently erecting a pavilion that will house a large ceramic relief work of the artist Lucio Fontana. The Austrian-American architect Raymond Abraham will be commissioned to build a house for musicians and composers.. Tadao Ando has designed a museum for a private collection of modern art, comprising of a large exhibition space under the earth. The Hermansdorf producers of organic foods have been encouraged to start a branch in between insel and Raketenstation. A farm house and stables have been planned where agricultural products would be produced and sold on a large scale.

It would be diversionary to describe all these activities in detail. However, it is important that they are listed here. As far as the development of the future museum is concerned, the Hombroich foundation can be seen as a pilot scheme that does not end with visual arts but that makes the museum a place of interdisciplinary practices. The development of contemporary art demonstrates that the artistic media that can be shown in the museum can not be limited. Therefore it is important that the Raketenstation and insel Hombroich are in one foundation as contemporary arts practice often demonstrates that the process of making art is often more interesting than the discussion of the final result.