As times change and develop, so too can the meaning of many of the structures around us. The built environment greatly impacts our vision and atmosphere of not only our daily lives, but of that of the society in which we live as well, so perhaps it’s not so strange to find that in Berlin a piece of Brutalism has become a symbol of inspiration and beauty.
The St. Agnes church in Kreuzberg was converted into the König Gallery, by Johann König in 2015. Now one of the city’s preeminent art galleries, hosting international artists practicing all varieties of mediums from painting to sound installations, the space has created a new meaning to the Brutalist structure and the energy it emits to the area. As one of the great art cities of the world, with new and established artists flocking in every year, Berlin holds a special responsibility with the narrative it projects through the artwork and through its art spaces. Many aspects play a part in the milieu, but art is an especially potent contributor in this rich and diverse cosmopolitan city.
Understanding architecture as a historically-contingent experience puts great weight on the planning, construction and use of a building, and it is a part of the city life that continues to develop and rather noticeably so in Berlin. While Berlin is no stranger to great change, and at a rather rapid pace, the city’s contemporary art scene has created a role for itself which ushers in a new era of artistic power and opportunity … whether it realizes it or not.
Brutalism has never been beautiful. The rigid geometrical frames, lack of ornamentation, and essential use of harsh, colorless materials like cement, brick and steel have made it famous for exuding a lack of comfort, and projecting an air of solemnity – a staple of many former Eastern Block countries and icons for the cities which they inhabit. With Brutalism rising in Europe in the greatly contentious decades of the 60s and 70s, a time alive with division, tension, and political and social discord, the architectural style produces significance beyond its asperous aesthetic. It existed within a self-contained atmosphere of structure, stability, and security, deriving that from the historical significance of the Church and religion – a recurring form of social and cultural frameworking. Architecture can call to emotions, and bring forth ideas, memories and feelings simply by the site of them. The St. Agnes church was built between 1964 and 1967 by Werner Dütteman – an architect and the former director of urban development in Berlin. This example of top-down influence serves as a window into the official milieu of the time, the events and the ideas which were part of the daily existence.
As a gallery, St. Agnes is reinvented; the public interaction with the space does not erase the history, but builds a bridge from past to present without negating time and place. Keeping the building as it is helps to continue historical awareness, but repurposing it offers new opportunity for the genius loci or “spirit of the place”. As a church, the building offers finite answers, rules, a clinging to the past way of life, and an idea of a core piece to the cultural make-up; the gallery the opposite – the possibility to explore, create and produce realities, the malleability and openness to exist in various forms, and a new point of importance in the vibe of the culture. The work then falls to the curators and the art itself to produce the effects, to help construct a vibe. The energy is dependent upon the artwork displayed and the ethos of the gallery, and it is here that this spatial power can be so drastically influenced. A space invented or reinvented can be used for openness and cosmopolitanism just as easily as it can be used for conservatism and nationalism.
König Gallery, though, has worked along the lines of the former. Through its artists and exhibitions, the gallery focuses on various viewpoints, exploring multiple subjects and ways to negotiate and experience the world. The gallery’s impressive line-up includes artists like Jose Dávila, who uses reinterpretation to look at influences of art history movements on peripheral cultures and Julian Rosefeldt, whose video installation piece explored a desolate yet eventually optimistic vision of a “post-anthropocene” future. The use of art to creatively analyze contemporary and theoretical issues facing society provides an expanded platform for perceptions and understanding, and more possibilities by which to further critique and react to the situations and topic that arise. The cosmopolitanism alive in Berlin has much to do with the myriad of ideas and perspectives which are positioned together, and the creativity by which they are produced and disseminated.
With the Berlin Gallery Weekend just around the corner, now is an especially commodious time to take the power of the gallery and the representation of space into consideration. Berlin’s Gallery Weekend takes place from 27 April – 29 April, and König Gallery will be showing Venus, Leda & Mona Lisa by Evelyne Axell and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth by Claudia Comte. It is during this weekend that the König Gallery and St. Agnes itself come into an even greater international spotlight, and allow not only Berlin, but the world to see the revisioned use of an iconic piece of architecture and a reinvention of the tradition of significance possible within the built environment.