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Piano’s Paul Klee Center: Best Laid Architectural Plans Turned Upside Down

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The Zentrum Paul Klee’s Secret Skylight
During my recent European sojourn, I got to see two of the world’s most celebrated recent museum buildings, both by Renzo Piano: His Beyeler Foundation Museum, in Riehen (near Basel), more than lived up to its reputation as one of the most perfect confluences of nature, architecture and art ever created. I was enchanted by everything—even the quiet, slow-moving glass elevator, and especially the little frog perched on the ledge of the reflecting pool, just outside a gallery window. It shows what can be accomplished by a single connoisseur (dealer/collector Ernst Beyeler) possessed of consummate taste and substantial resources.
I also admired Piano’s Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, but the experience was partly diminished by two disappointments:
First, the dramatic curve-ceilinged, upper-level galleries were closed for a major reconfiguration and reinstallation, because they were being repurposed: Originally designed to display the permanent collection, the top floor, as of this summer, has become the space for temporary exhibitions.
Rotating selections from the permanent collection have been relegated to the more modest lower-level galleries, which now contain an exhibition revolving around a major loan—Klee’s Ad Parnassum. This key painting in his oeuvre has not, because of its fragile condition, left the nearby Bern Kunstmuseum in 14 years.
Turning the Klee museum upside down was the idea of the its new director, Juri Steiner, who wanted to place more emphasis on temporary shows that juxtapose loaned works with the permanent collection. First up on the upper level: Paul Klee—Theatre Here, There and Everywhere, to Oct. 14, which includes some 40 works from museums and galleries in Switzerland as well as from the Tate Modern, the Pompidou Center and the Museum of Modern Art, among others.
My second disappointment was my discovery that the upper-level galleries are not skylit. Perhaps because of its greenhouse-like appearance, I had mistakenly assumed that the roof of the museum’s three glass-and-steel “hills” admitted natural light.
The museum’s curator, Michael Baumgartner, who gave me a quick peek at the peaks, told me that Piano had initially hoped for skylights. But the requirements of the art took precedence over architectural aesthetics.
As the museum’s website notes:
The Zentrum Paul Klee will be showing mainly light-sensitive works that can stand a maximum of 80 lux. The future Centre will therefore be a twilight museum. The daylight that trickles in through the roof is regulated and dampened.
The “trickle” is not readily evident: The ceiling appears opaque.
But there IS one place, which you will never see (above), where Piano got his wish: The roof over the staff offices is transparent, admitting rays so bright that they’ve installed patio umbrellas over some tables—part joke, part necessity. Pass the sunscreen.
You can access images of the Klee center, including shots of what the top-floor gallery looked like before its makeover, on the website of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. (Click on “Selected Projects” and then on “Zentrum Paul Klee.”)
But only on CultureGrrl can you view the secret sunny sanctum!

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