Last week, I spent some time in Köln with friends and family. The friends were architects, and the first thing they said, before “hello”, even, was “We have to go to Kolumba.”

They are forgiven.

Kolumba is the art museum of the Archdiocese, and you can stop yawning now, because it’s not what you think.

It’s a space unlike any I’ve ever been. But let me start from the beginning.

Or rather, the most recent beginning.

The basis for the building is the medieval St. Kolumba parish church, in the middle of Köln. It was destroyed during the war: the only things remaining were sections of the external walls and tower, and a statue of the mother of God (further cementing it as a place for contemplation).

A small chapel was built around the statue after the war ended, and in the late 1990s Swiss architect Peter Zumthor built the museum up out of and incorporating the ruins, making a continuous building out of old and new.

You wouldn’t think it, but it’s pretty seamless. The long, thin, gray brick comes from Denmark and cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1 euro per piece, said my architect friends, and the inside is a mixed of rough limestone, mortar, glass, deeply coloured wood, steel, highly polished stone, and translucent silk.

And despite all of the gray stone, the glass, and steel, it has a very warm feel to it, in part because of the little details. The occasional room that’s not square, or the slight step between rooms, with light shining through it to illuminate the difference, or massive windows that bleed over the exterior, functioning as entire walls, and making you feel like there’s no barrier at all between you and the city.

The pièce de résistence is an enclosed, excavated burial chamber with a cherrywood walkway built throughout,

and missing bricks to let the light (and, when we were there, snow) in.

And then there’s the reading room.

It’s an astonishing place: a building incorporating the ruins of a church that’s a work of art, which houses art (both classic and contemporary) and religion, and makes one think. A building that binds that past and the present, if not the future. But also a place that defies definition.