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Paul Klee Centre takes root in Bern

Architect's scale model of future Paul Klee Centre

The foundation stone has been laid at an official ceremony to herald the start of construction work on Bern's most ambitious art project for decades.

Due for completion before the end of 2004, the Paul Klee Centre will house more than 4,000 works, making it easily the world’s most important collection of paintings, drawing and sculptures by Klee, who was born near the Swiss capital and lived there for most of his life. He died in 1940.

But when it opens to the public in 2005, the centre is destined to be a work of art in its own right. Designed by award-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano, it will consist of what look like three hills emerging from the landscape, in complete harmony with the nature. The site is a green area on the outskirts of Bern.

Architectural features of what Piano describes as “a landscape sculpture” include steel arches and wooden materials, constructed so that natural lighting will do justice to the works of one of modern art’s most original and influential figures.

Dream project

Two remarkable offers turned the dream of building a shrine to his painting career into reality. The Klee family said it would donate a substantial number of art works by him to the public – on condition that a Klee museum was built by 2006.

Then Professor Maurice Müller – a pioneering orthopaedic surgeon – and his wife Martha pledged more than SFr60 million ($36 million), including land, towards the building costs. The remainder of the more than SFr100 million costs will be met by the city and canton of Bern, and by private sponsorship.

Among those present at Thursday’s ceremony was Klee’s grandson, Alexander. “My father Felix died almost exactly 12 years ago,” he told swissinfo, “and the idea for such a centre was in his head. He was always dreaming of a moment like this and, in a way, I’m representing him now. I think it’s fantastic that we have reached this point.”

Emotional experience

The ceremony was also an emotional experience for Professor Müller, although in an interview with swissinfo he confessed to having ambivalent feelings about the project: “The beginning is marvellous, but how will things go during the next three years?” he said.

Now in his 80s, the retired medical professor continued: “It’s like performing a major operation on a good friend. We’re a little afraid before and after it starts. I’m happy if everything goes well during the operation, but I’m happiest if it’s still going well after five or ten years.

“This is the same sort of thing. We’ve made the pre-operation drawings and now we have to do things by hand which are important.”

Engineering challenge

British engineer Bob Lang, whose London-based firm is involved in the project with local partners, is one of those involved in the “handwork”, while the centre is built.

“It’s certainly a different style of architecture from what we’re used to by Renzo Piano, in that it’s as much a landscape sculpture as a building above ground,” he said, “so it presents a different engineering challenge. This is interesting for us because we have to apply slightly different rules than for a normal building.”

Lang added that with the planning stages over, the most interesting part was now beginning for the engineers. “After all the abstract work, the theory and the philosophy – which we share – we now have to understand the implications and reality of what I believe will be quite an amazing building.

“You can’t be involved in something of this scale and potential without having a degree of professional pride. That’s the driving force.”

by Richard Dawson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR