How do today's great architects compare with the past? What do we still have to learn from architectural heritage? We re-read the works of David Adjaye, David Chipperfiled and John Pawson to find out

The Neue Museum is the youngest building on the Berlin Museumsinsel. It was commissioned in 1841 by Emperor William IV and designed by architect Friedrich August Stüler to house Egyptian antiquities and free up the Altes Museum.

Severely damaged by Allied bombing during the Second World War, its restoration, or rather the maintenance of its ruins, began again in 1989.

It was only after the reunification of Germany that the project was entrusted to the British architect David Chipperfield and the reopening took place in 2009.

Architecture as a historical reminder

Chipperfield says the restoration of the Neue Museum was an extremely complex job.

Starting from the principles of the Venice Charter, the result of a collective reflection on post-war reconstruction models, the architect works with the tip of a pencil, convinced that: "The restoration and repair of the existing are guided by the idea that original structure must be exalted in its spatial context and in its original materiality".

The new reflects the old without imitating it, in short. Replicate without mimicking the original.

The stratification of memory

All of Chipperfield's work is a delicate and respectful intervention of mnemonic stratification, starting from the materials.

The new exhibition halls are built with large-format prefabricated elements made up of white cement mixed with Saxon marble chips.

In the central hall the construction volumes have been preserved and the staircase repeats the formal concept of the original without replicating it. The ornamental elements, which no longer exist, have not been replaced.

The moral themes of heritage

David Chipperfield with the Neue Museum had to tackle a moral issue of great importance, as well as a complex project that restored the original 1938 plan to the entire architectural and urban plan.

Memory has been gently integrated into the aesthetics of the city, and returned in the form of a project that stratifies history without erasing it.

In short, Chipperfield has done a great cultural favor for Germany and for the whole world, working wisely to keep a difficult historical memory alive.

Fragments of the past that returns to the present

The theme of heritage is this. Distinguish and bring together the fragments of a lexicon that starts from afar and is recoded in the contemporary for content and form.

A similar operation, albeit of a completely different nature, to the one that architect David Adjaye carried out in 2016 with the National Museum of African American History and Art in Washington A.D.

Another thorny issue, that of African-American culture. Adjaye wanted to solve it with an exploration of national identity. What does American mean? The answer is clear: “America was built on the shoulders of Africans and without this awareness one cannot understand the nation .

Multicultural complexity and social justice according to David Adjaye.

American culture was born on the shoulders of other worlds

Adjaye intentionally layered different architectural references and different ways to make the multicultural complexity of formal quotations readable.

The National Museum of African American History is located inside the National Mall in Washington, an important institutional node for the whole nation.

Adjaye worked for aesthetic quotes. Materials that mirror the Washington Monument, an ornamental motif on the facade that dates back to the blacks of the metallurgical industry of the American Deep South.

And the construction has a form derived from Yoruba art. The NMAAHC thus results in a relationship that is both critical and harmonious with the other monumental works on the Mall.

John Pawson: simplicity and details to let the memory speak

Recovering memory, according to the minimalist architect John Pawson, means working on simplicity. The lesson comes from his teacher Shiro Kuramata, and from the time spent in Japan in the seventies, where he found his own professional path.

The obsession with materials and details has given shape to every architectural work, from the Design Museum in London, to the numerous private residences up to the restoration projects of churches and monasteries in Great Britain.

Memory is a Zen gesture, it is honored by removing and respecting the original roots of an architecture.

An ancient farm between past and present

His most significant work (and one of the most recent), which represents a formal and design synthesis, is his home in the Cotswolds. An agricultural region, famous for its old farms, typical of a vernacular tradition which favors low, essential buildings.

Pawson's Farm House originally consisted of two buildings: a farmhouse and a stable.

The architect combined them with a minimal intervention in concrete, which enhances the original materials by contradiction and at the same time neutralizes any ornamental intention.

The spirituality of detail

The interiors have, perhaps unintentionally, a monkish look. The exposed beams, the open but not monumental volumes, the low ceilings. The functional parts have been treated with the usual material minimalism.

Decency is absent and for this reason the obsession with details emerges overwhelmingly.

Simplicity, ever more simplicity, to give new life to an ancient context and bring it, in all its expressive power, into the contemporary.