Sauerbruch-Hutton dress the Museum of the 20th Century in the colors of Venice. ― 

The Museum of the 20th Century at Mestre, Italy, opened to the public in December 2018. Designed by the Berlin-based architects Sauerbruch-Hutton, the Museum is a case study of integrating a contemporary structure into a historical core, at Terra Ferma, next to the city of Venice. Its strategy relies on working with the vibrant colors of the urban context, and the architects made a very bold statement.

The 5000 sq.m. complex is articulated in two separate volumes: The Museum grows in four levels, and faces a smaller building dedicated to retail, to ensure the sustainability of the cultural program. In-between the buildings, a pedestrian alley leads to a restored monastery with a publicly accessible interior courtyard, at the opposite end of the city block. The Museum is very well integrated in the city, in terms of scale and public movement. However, the boldest urban gesture is made with the treatment of the façade: this also makes part of public space, and it always remains an integral question of architectural design.

Matthias Sauerbruch and Elisabeth Hutton rank among the most original contemporary researchers in architectural polychromy. Benchmarking from Gottfried Semper’s neoclassical theories, they treat their modern facades as if they were woven fabrics, “dressing” the body of architecture; in the same manner, facades could be understood as masks, displaying the intended features of a building’s public, civic face. In that sense, the façade may follow its own rules of design, almost autonomously. Very often, the architects display vibrant colors on the façade, and prefer to use a palette of natural materials for their interiors; this juxtaposition brings to prominence the independence of the various components in an architectural composition.

At Mestre, the architects “dress” two contemporary buildings in an impressive façade of ceramic tiles, coated in the exact same colors to be found in the old townhouses of the surrounding historical core. The Museum façade is an abstract representation of Mestre’s urban landscape, and it is full of mobility. The oblong grid of the tiles is placed at an angle to the ground level, both to accentuate the perspective depth of the street leading to the monastery, as well as to imply the continuation of the public movement towards the top of the Museum. At places, the façade is lifted to leave transparent the reception areas on the ground floor and leave unbroken the visual continuity of the public space at street level, through the Museum building. Furthermore, towards the top of the building, the façade recedes, to reveal the different materiality of the building’s “body”: this is materialized in bare concrete, and industrial wood in natural hues.

The ”body” of the Museum is equally striking, but follows its own, independent set of design rules: The detailing of bare concrete is accentuated with the use of natural light and artificial light from unexpected angles, and it can be enjoyed from a number of stairs and mezzanine floors, allowing for multiple-height voids. The flooring, in wood and natural stone, as well as the selective cladding of some surfaces in natural wooden panels, complement the intimate feel of an architectural body that remains “naked”, and is inhabited on the inside, in terms of privacy. Its intended public face is reserved for the façade, and it is designed differently.

The Museum at Mestre is the latest one in a long series of research-by-design projects, by Sauerbruch-Hutton: Color, as a tool of architectural communication, always remains prominent, from the smallest design detail to the big, urban gesture.