art gallery in a Berlin church

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

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

He is one of Germany’s most successful young gallery owners, representing many well-known artists in the international art world. Since 2015, its main exhibition space, the Konig Galleryin Berlin, has been in St Agnes, a former Roman Catholic church built in the Brutalist style in the 1960s. As a gallery, it’s spectacular.

He is now looking for other disused churches, in the UK and elsewhere, to convert into galleries, but says it is not easy to deal with church authorities. “We have written many letters, making it clear that we are sincere in what we would like to do with the buildings.”

Mr. König, 40, is an unlikely art dealer and passionate about church architecture. A freak accident when he was a teenager damaged his eyesight, leaving him partially blind – unusual for someone selling visual art. He says his poor vision forced him to develop his own distinct approach, including focusing on artists, not just their art, and breaking down barriers to the often elitist art world.

Moreover, his parents – Kasper König, a famous German art curator, and Edda Köchl-König, an actress and illustrator – were, he says, staunchly anti-Church. When he was growing up in western Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, they discouraged him from taking religious education classes, and he now regrets not having done so.

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

This awareness pushed him to search for spaces imbued with more meaning. “When you ask architects about their favorite projects, they often say churches and museums because they are about the space itself, not just the function of the building.”

“In museums as in churches, you live an intimate experience, but it is also an experience that you share with others. I find it a really interesting experience.

Roman März, courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE Berlin/London/Seoul/ViennaSt Agnes’s, Kreuzberg, West Berlin

“You are in a church, your voice drops, the light changes and you react to the physical building, and others too, and you share this special experience with them, without knowing them. You could call it a spiritual experience.

St Agnes appealed to Mr. König because of its history and architectural style. His brooding appearance has changed little, judging by the old black-and-white photos. It was built between 1964 and 1967 by Werner Düttmann, a renowned architect and urban planner, who designed many important buildings in West Berlin.

The style he chose, brutalism, originated in Britain in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with brutality, says Mr König: the term comes from a French expression for exposed concrete. , the preferred material for styling. In fact, supporters of brutalism believed in the creation of 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 came from destroyed buildings.

The church was part of a pioneering social housing program of the 1960s, the “Spring Project”, in Kreuzberg, a working-class neighborhood known today also as a multicultural center with many people of Turkish origin and as a neighborhood trendy party. .

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

Dwindling congregations led to the decision to desecrate St Agnes in 2005. Its organ was moved to a nearby church. It was initially leased by a Free Evangelical Church, but that didn’t last and the building fell into disrepair.

The huge nave, 40 meters long and 20 meters high, was designed to accommodate more than 1,000 worshippers. Old photos show rows of simple wooden benches and no windows except skylights.

“When you entered the church in its original state, your eyes were immediately drawn to heaven, to God,” says König.

Mr. König and his team of architects have divided the nave horizontally with what he calls a “gigantic table top”: a new first floor, supported by columns. This created space for a store and two smaller galleries, one in a former side chapel.

The main exhibition area is accessible by stairs leading to the new first floor. The room, still 15 meters high, retains the atmosphere of a church, “a sense of contemplation”, says Mr. König.

I visited on a Sunday, when the gallery was busy. Visitors seemed momentarily overwhelmed as they entered the nave, pausing to absorb the combination of space and art, and some of them snapping photos with their phones.

Mr. König’s redesign retains much of the original interior, the “very honest” materials of concrete, brick and wood. A wooden suspended ceiling was installed. The panels on the walls are designed to avoid right angles. There are narrow gaps between the panels where they meet, giving a sense of infinity when looking along the walls.

The overall overhaul has nonetheless sparked controversy. “It was a daunting task to convince the Listed Buildings Authority of what we wanted to do. They thought we would destroy space. In fact, we elevated the experience of being in it.

Mr. König and his wife, Lena, who runs the gallery with him, live with their children in the priest’s apartment. The couple have also created a lush and peaceful sculpture garden within the compound.

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

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

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. The links with the local community are important. Visit of children from the school opposite; there are free guided tours (entrance is free); and the gallery is occupied by locals, who “sometimes tell us that they were baptized or married here, and appreciate the good use of the building”.

Attempts to replicate the project are generally discouraged by Byzantine ecclesiastical regulations and structures. Plus, the space has to work: he’s aware of disused churches in the UK that have had conversions, but most of the time, he says, “their energy is gone”. Finding a church in London would be good; but people would be willing to travel in a wide 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 a social purpose were born. Church planners and architects of 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. By reactivating these churches, it shows how progressive the Church has been.

For the Church, it could be good marketing,” he suggests with a smile. “Our Sundays at the gallery are busy.”

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