BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 02 SEP 06

According to the Brothers Grimm, Frankfurt’s Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) – the new home of Portikus – was built by Beelzebub. The way the brothers tell it, unable to finish the bridge on the day promised, the architect made a Faustian pact with Lucifer to complete the construction in exchange for the first living being to cross it. On the evening before the deadline the bridge was mysteriously completed, but in the morning, before anyone took the first crossing, the architect shooed a rooster onto the bridge, outwitting the Archfiend and saving the human soul he expected as recompense. The Alte Brücke dates from the Middle Ages – it has been destroyed and rebuilt at least 18 times since – and is now in the hands of Christoph Mäckler, one of the darlings of Frankfurt architecture.

In 2005 Mäckler completed the reconstruction of Johann Christian Hess’ 1825 Alte Stadtbibliothek (Old City Library), whose portico survived World War II and coincidentally served distinctively as the façade for a small white cube gallery founded by Kasper König and playfully christened Portikus in 1987. The library restoration meant that the gallery needed new billeting, and in 2002 the city found permanent quarters for Portikus in Mäckler’s Old Bridge master-plan. (Until the building was completed, provisional quarters in the historical Gothic Leinwandhaus featured an impromptu modular design by Tobias Rehberger.) The Portikus Mäckler has produced is a work of faux-historicist confection, a perfectly coiffed Postmodern caricature of medieval architecture with steeply pitched roofs, narrow windows and unembellished everything else. The resulting impression is that a bastard relative of Roland Hill’s famous Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland has landed in the Rhine.

With Disney’s 1937 adaptation of the Grimm fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty echoing in your head, you could say that Mäckler has visited the brothers upon Frankfurt’s Old Bridge again, this time selling architectural froth as the soul of his design. A large portion of Mäckler’s practice lies somewhere between conservation and conversion, which he serves up in the form of strict linear narratives. In a 1628 etching we see two small mills astride the bridge, which had mostly disappeared by the time Gustave Courbet painted his View of Frankfurt in 1858. Mäckler, the conservator, will restore both; now Portikus is open, the other, yet to be built, will become a café. It would seem in this teasing criss-crossing of fairy-tales that Beelzebub has finally seen his revenge for being bested in the matter of the Old Bridge, and fittingly he serves it icy cold.

Mäckler’s plan has stylistic lustre but no contemporary subtext, so apart from his frigid impersonations of tradition there is no reason to dig deeper. As you step inside Portikus, things recover markedly: the little white cube is as
versatile as the little black dress that goes from office to evening by throwing on a string of pearls. Portikus thus goes from pert white box to a soaring interior by throwing off the gallery’s ceiling; a small balcony allows for dramatic perspectives from above, and this worked brilliantly for the opening exhibition – itself about architecture – Marjetica Potrc and Tomas Saraceno’s ‘Personal States/Infinite Actives’.

The balcony provided an aerial view of Potrc’s Prishtina House (2006), a case study of the architectural typology that thrives in Kosovo’s fragile capital, emerging from strife as a UN protectorate. This perspective served symbolically for Saraceno’s From Flying Garden to Airport (undated), a visionary feasibility study for living aloft as an alternative to life with man-made problems such as overpopulation, climate change and conflict. Potrc’s project grounded in the all-too-real and Saraceno’s Utopia-on-high provided a fast-acting antidote to Mäckler’s allergy to the intrusion of contemporary life and its messy unpredictability. But the crowning achievement of curator Nikola Dietrich and director Daniel Birnbaum is the first instalment of Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Light Lab’ (2006–ongoing) series, which makes the most of its nest in Mäckler’s pitched roof; its resplendent glow sinks the taciturn architecture with every sunset.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.