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A Whiff Of Modernism In Cologne

July 12, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

COLOGNE, West Germany — What makes a successful museum? Ah, good, for once an easy question. A terrific collection, decently housed, makes a successful museum.

Oh wrong, wrong, wrong. How can anybody be so hopelessly out of date? When plans for a new museum were unveiled in Cologne everybody hated them. They hated the idea of plopping a museum devoted mainly to contemporary art down right next door to the Cologne cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture begun in 1269 and renowned for its soaring, rocket-shaped towers. They hated the museums design with its ranks of shark-tooth skylights.

What an affront. Looks like a factory right here next to our venerable and beruehmt cathedral. What we need here is nice park.

Now the museum is finished and since its opening last winter public opinion has about-faced. People love the combined Museum Ludwig and the Wallraf Richartz Museum as well as the philharmonic hall and the cinema housed in the same building designed by Peter Busmann and Godfrid Haberer. That must be because they are wafted to heights of aesthetic delectation by the Old Master art in the Wallraf Richartz collection that contains such delights as Stephan Lochner's sweet "Madonna of the Rose Garden" and such stirring oddities as Arnold Bocklins' "Pirate Attack." It must be because they are proud that the chocolate baron and controversial high-rolling collector Peter Ludwig gave them one of the most highly reputed collections of American Pop art in the known world. It was valued at $45 million when he promised it in 1976 and has easily quadrupled in value in the meantime.

Well it seems impossible that the citizens of the town famous for Eau de Cologne are insensitive to the vapors of art, but it also appears that that is not the main reason they like the museum.

They like the museum because it is improving their relationship with the Barbarians.

What Barbarians?

Themselves. The German Barbarians.

That doesn't make sense.

It does make sense, but only after we appear to digress for a little story as related by the Ludwig Museum's chief curator, Edith Weiss.

The city of Cologne lies astride the Rhine and has a right and left bank like many another old European city. In ancient times Cologne was a Roman outpost, a fact proven by the excellent Romish-Germanisches Museum which is next door to the Ludwig and across the square from the Cathedral and the Dom Hotel. In their heyday the Romans were, naturally, the ruling class and lived on the side of the the river where the Ludwig Museum and all the rest of everything a tourist is liable to see, including the railroad station, is still located today. For all the visitors who throng the city, it retains an aristocratic aura. The main coffee-and-pastries shop on the Dom is so full of classy-looking matrons in lavender beaver hats that the average guy is afraid to infiltrate the place for a gooey afternoon sweet.

So while the Romans where eating their eclairs and having them too, the locals, the plebes, the indigenous Barbarian Teutons, were relegated to the other side of the river. Evidently, tradition dies hard in Cologne because, according to Frau Weiss, to this day houses are cheaper over there even when just as elegant as those on the cathedral side. Two thousand years later it is considered vaguely declasse to live on the "wrong" bank.

To make matters worse, after a few dozen centuries and a couple of World Wars a tacky bus depot stood where the Ludwig Museum is today. The station was a magnet for undesirables. Women were warned not to go into the area at night. Bad enough to have such a blight anywhere in a respectable city, but this haven for low lifes stood exactly on the crucial hub that joins chic Cologne to the old town river walk and the arched iron bridge leading across the river. It was a festering sore blocking civic circulation.

Thanks to the museum and the surrounding Heinrich-Boll-Platz designed (significantly) by Israeli landscape architect Dani Karavan, that is now all fixed. The city is reunited and Cologners even hope the left bank might become socially acceptable.

So there you are. A successful museum is one that furthers a scheme of inner city redevelopment, even as did Los Angeles' own Museum of Contemporary Art. In Germany, with its intense consciousness of political symbolism, one cannot overlook the conciliatory gesture of the Israeli landscaper or fail to note that the two main museums here are devoted to art by peoples who conquered the Germans in war and furthered their culture in peace, the Romans and the Americans.

That is a good story and only a fink would begrudge museums a useful civic role, if they can play one. All the same, there remains an eccentric minority who go to museums primarily for the art. Is that contingent going to palpitate to this museum?

Well, not exactly.

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