Construction on the Spree island has always been difficult because the earth beneath the city is extremely sandy and the Pergamonmuseum and Bodes Museum, both verging on the water, were erected on mud. The terrain was formed by the last Ice Age, which ended some 18,000 years ago. The meltwater from the glacier formed an outwash plain, known today by its German name, the Berlin Urstromtal, or ‘meltwater valley’. Construction professionals attempting to build here have always had to contend not only with the high water table but also a kolk (a crater formed by a vortex of flowing water) filled with mud. The first buildings on the Museum Island were therefore built on wooden piles, which were driven into the mud until they reached more competent strata. The kolk on the site of the James-Simon-Galerie was 40 metres deep, far deeper than the riverbed. On more than 1200 steel piles measuring up to 50 metres in length, a concrete foundation pad was brought into place underwater and connected to the piles by a team of divers. This elaborate construction will bear the load of the building that will soon emerge in the caisson keeping the water and mud out: the James-Simon-Galerie.
In 1749 King Friderich II of Prussia ordered the creation of the Neuer Packhof (or ‘New Customs House’) on the Spree island, where the James-Simon-Galerie is currently being built. He allowed his former orangery to be used to house it. At this point in time the Spree island was not home to a cluster of museums and was instead a thriving business hub with a port, a tax office, and a loading yard for all kinds of goods. In 1829 Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the eminent architect and town planner, extended the New Customs House so that it reached Kupfergraben. In spite of this, the customs house’s days were already numbered. Just a few years later its buildings would give way to a new project – the Museum Island. The last surviving building from that era originally served as the residence of the customs-and-excise director and was later converted into the offices of the museums’ director-general. However, at risk of collapse, it was finally demolished in 1938. With its new entrance building for the Museum Island, David Chipperfield Architects now wishes to evoke the memory of Schinkel’s customs house.
The Archäologische Promenade connects the James-Simon-Galerie with four museums that currently stand as separate, solitary entities on the Museum Island. Visitors are be able to stroll through millennia of cultural history: from ancient Egypt through to Mesopotamia, ancient Rome and Greece, on through the world of Islam and the European Middle Ages, to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The major themes of humanity – god and gods, time and history, dwellings from huts to palaces, the afterlife, from the Orient to the Occident, from Byzantium to Babylon – unfurl before the visitors’ eyes. The Promenade fulfils an idea to which even the museums’ founding fathers had aspired and which is about to be brought to life on the new Museum Island.