Art gallery in a Berlin church

Art gallery in a Berlin church | Pro Club Bd

FOR Johann König, churches have something special, even if they are no longer places of worship. The German art dealer has galleries in unusual locations, including a department store in Seoul and an underground car park in west London.

“No room has the energy of a church. A church interior charges art with its spiritual past,” says Herr König.

He is one of the most successful young gallery owners in Germany and represents many well-known artists in the international art world. Since 2015 his main exhibition venue, the König Galerie in Berlin, is located in St. Agnes, a former Roman Catholic church built in the 1960s in a brutalist style. As a gallery it is spectacular.

He is now looking to other disused churches in the UK and elsewhere to convert into galleries but says dealing with church authorities is not easy. “We wrote a lot of letters to make it clear that we are serious about what we want to do with the buildings.”

Mr. König, 40 years old, is an unusual art dealer and enthusiast of church architecture. When he was a teenager, a freak accident damaged his eyesight and left him partially sighted, unusual for someone selling fine art. He says his poor vision forced him to develop his own distinctive approach, including focusing on artists, not just their art, and breaking down barriers to the often elitist art world.

In addition, his parents – Kasper König, a famous German art curator, and Edda Köchl-König, an actress and illustrator – were decidedly anti-church. Growing up in West Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, he was discouraged from taking religious education classes, and today he regrets not having done so.

MOST art galleries are in nondescript rooms with white plywood walls, he says. “They could be in New York, Berlin or Singapore and you don’t know the difference. That’s a shame.”

This realization prompted him to search for more meaningful spaces. “If you ask architects what their favorite projects are, they often say churches and museums because it’s about the space itself, not just the function of the building.”

“Both in museums and in churches you have an intimate experience – but it is one that you also share with others. I find this a really interesting experience.

Roman March, courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE Berlin/London/Seoul/ViennaSt. Agnes, Kreuzberg, in West Berlin

“You’re in a church, your voice gets quieter, the light changes and you have a reaction to the physical building, and so do others and you share that particular experience with them without knowing it. You could call it a spiritual experience.”

St Agnes approached Mr King for its history and architectural style. Judging by the old black-and-white photos, little has changed about his brooding appearance. It was built between 1964 and 1967 by Werner Düttmann, a renowned architect and urban planner who designed many prominent buildings in West Berlin.

The style he chose, Brutalism, emerged in Britain in the 1950s. That has nothing to do with brutality, says König: The term comes from a French expression for exposed concrete, the preferred material for the style. Indeed, proponents of Brutalism believed in creating public buildings for the common good: a new social utopia.

In this case, the church was part of ambitious plans to rebuild West Berlin after the destruction of World War II, particularly the bomb sites in the center of the city. Some of the bricks used come from destroyed buildings.

THE church was part of a pioneering social housing project of the 1960s, the “Spring Project”, in Kreuzberg, a working-class district that is now also known as a multicultural center with many people of Turkish origin and as a hip party district.

The church and estate were built in an isolated corner of the city, very close to the Berlin Wall, which divided the street on which the church stands.

Shrinking communities led to the 2005 decision to desecrate St Agnes. The organ was moved to a neighboring church. It was initially rented by a free evangelical church, but that didn’t last long and the building fell into disrepair.

The huge nave, 40 meters long and 20 meters high, was designed for more than 1000 worshipers. Old photos show rows of plain wooden benches and no windows other than skylights.

“When you entered the church in its original state, you immediately went to heaven, to God,” says Herr König.

Herr König and his team of architects divided the nave horizontally with what he calls a “giant table top”: a new ground floor supported by columns. This created space for a shop and two smaller galleries, one of which is in a former side chapel.

The main exhibition area is entered via a staircase to the new ground floor. The room, which is still 15 meters high, exudes the impression of a church, “a feeling of reflection,” says Mr. König.

I visited on a Sunday when the gallery was full. Visitors seemed overwhelmed for a moment as they entered the nave and paused to take in the combination of space and art, and some of them took pictures with their cellphones.

Mr. Koenig’s redesign retains much of the original interior design, the ‘very honest’ materials of concrete, brick and wood. A suspended wooden ceiling was installed. Panels on the walls are designed to avoid square corners. There are narrow gaps between the panels where they meet, giving a sense of infinity as you look along the walls.

The whole redesign nevertheless caused controversy. “It was a big task to convince the monument authorities of our project. They thought we were going to destroy the room. In fact, we increased the experience of being in it.”

Herr König and his wife Lena, who runs the gallery with him, live with their children in the pastor’s apartment. The couple have also created a lush, peaceful sculpture garden on the grounds.

The location of THE Gallery is a challenge for wealthy art collectors, Mr. Koenig’s main clientele. It’s a ten-minute walk from one of Berlin’s less attractive U-Bahn stations, and along the way you’ll pass high-rise buildings and stroll through a windswept concrete shopping and community center.

Herr König writes in his autobiography Blind gallery owner (to be published in English this year) that the company was difficult to sell to his friends and advisers. “Almost everyone thought it was absolutely horrid,” he writes.

But art should be accessible to everyone, he says, not just the super-rich. He estimates that less than one percent of his visitors buy an artwork. Connections to the local community are important. visiting the children of the opposite school; there are free tours (admission free); and the gallery is tended to by locals who “sometimes tell us they have been christened or married here and how much they appreciate the building being put to good use”.

Attempts to reproduce the project are usually discouraged by Byzantine ecclesiastical regulations and structures. The space has to work too: he knows disused churches in Britain that have been converted, but mostly, he says, “their energy is gone”. It would be good to find a church in London; but people would be willing to travel to a large space, he believes.

He sees his approach as an opportunity for church decision-making bodies, particularly in Britain, where Brutalism and its focus on creating buildings with social purpose emerged. Church planners and architects in the past “were so progressive, taking this Brutalist architecture and building these post-war churches everywhere,” he says.

“I think this element is relatively unknown. That we are reactivating these churches shows how progressive the church has been.”

It could be good marketing for the church,” he suggests, smiling. “Our Sundays in the gallery are pretty busy.”

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