My cultural highlight this week was a visit to Kolumba in Cologne. This museum has been around for almost a year now, but you know how it is: when you’re not a tourist, when you live in a city, you never really get around to seeing the sights…
A couple of friends had already been to Kolumba’s new building, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. They’d all raved about the architecture and the exhibits.
But the fact that Kolumba is the art museum of the archbishopric of Cologne somehow didn’t help to get me excited about it.
Was I ever in for a surprise
Kolumba is very different from your average museum. One of the unusual ideas here is that the exhibits aren’t organized in a time line. You don’t walk through the ages and see how ideas and styles evolve over time.
Instead, pieces of art are juxtaposed: a medieval statue next to an Andy Warhol. A gilded baroque angel next to an abstract yellow painting. An elaborate silver reliquary from the 13th century next to a small meditative painting by Alexej Jawlensky from 1937 that’s almost completely black.
Architecture and art
It’s not just the juxtaposition that brings these works of art to life. It’s also the space that they’re given in this amazing architecture. The building is minimalist, yet spectacular. The architecture doesn’t take center stage, but works extremely well with the artworks.
Hardly any rooms in the museum are square – instead, Zumthor surprises you with new room shapes and heights at every turn you make.
A courtyard for contemplation
One of the most magical spots of the museum is a little courtyard, which used to be the graveyard of Kolumba church. Today, it’s a place for contemplation – fine white pebbles, some trees and some chairs.
When you sit down here and look around yourself, you see the ruins of the gothic Kolumba church that used to stand here until it was destroyed in World War II.
Behind these walls is a site that shows the excavated ruins of the medieval church, but also of the Roman houses that were there even before the church was built. Then you have some 1950’s architecture by Gottfried Böhm, who rebuilt parts of Kolumby church after the War. And finally, above all and holding it all together, is Zumthor’s 21st century architecture.
Giving art the space it needs
Another thing that adds to the Kolumba museum’s effect is that the rooms are not stuffed with all the artworks that the church surely owns – the curators limited themselves to a few exciting pieces. Some of them aren’t even by well-known artists, but seen in this context, they suddenly gain new impact.
You really start thinking about the art in a different way when you see it presented in this museum. It’s awe-inspiring, sublime, stunning.
I came out of that museum feeling inspired. Small. Grateful.
And I almost feel ashamed for having entered this shrine wearing camouflage shorts and flip flops.
More pictures here.