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Letter from Berlin

By Michael Fensom

Christian Boros’ World War II-era Berlin bunker proves to be a harmonious setting for contemporary art and an example for a growing city.


In the heart of Berlin’s Mitte district, a five-story air-raid bunker built in 1942 has come to epitomize the city’s vibrant contemporary art scene. Originally designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, to shelter approximately 2,000 people from enemy air strikes during World War II, the Bunker’s nearly 10-foot thick concrete walls now house the personal contemporary art collection of German advertising magnate Christian Boros. Since its inception in 2008, the Boros Bunker has become a dazzling example of a growing trend in Berlin’s art landscape—the private, ever-growing collection in public view.

Boros, in creating a home for his collection (and family—part of the Bunker’s transformation included the installation of a penthouse on its roof) in a space that is closely tied to part of Berlin’s regrettable past, has channeled the city’s collective movement toward growth and redefinition. Rather than tearing down, Berliners delight in rebirth.

Yet relics of Speer’s plans are still present in the city’s architectural landscape. In1937 Speer was promoted to General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital, a position of extraordinary import and power. By that point, Speer was already the Nazis’ chief architect, but his new position granted him near-autonomy to reshape Berlin. The centerpiece of Speer’s plans, backed by Hitler, included a three-mile boulevard called the Street of Magnificence, designed to bisect the city running north to south and bookend it with huge monuments devoted to the German state, outmatching any in the world. But as the war effort sped to full throttle, Speer’s concepts were shelved and, ultimately, abandoned.

Berlin today is no less a playground for lack of Speer’s plans. The city’s identity has been transformed radically since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in a refreshing contrast, the historic elements have fused harmoniously with the new—especially where art is concerned.

For instance, the Hamburger Bahnhof, a building constructed as a central train station during the mid-19th century, has been transformed into the Museum für Gegenwart, for contemporary art. In Pankow, a section in the north, the former Engelhardt brewery has been repurposed as a space for artists-in-residence run by an initiative called HomeBase. And even Speer’s work—the portion he was able to complete—has been woven artfully into the fabric of Berlin’s cultural renaissance.   

The Boros Bunker, too, has a long and colorful history. After World War II, the site was employed as a produce market. Devoid of daylight, it was perfect for storing fruits and vegetables because the intricate ventilation system efficiently kept the interior temperature down. For seven years after the Berlin Wall fell, it became a techno and fetish club called “The Bunker,” renowned in Germany for the scale of its productions. But the building’s current incarnation has made it, as in Speer’s time, a modern monument [when did Boros buy it? Good question] [It wasn’t a monument in Speer’s time, it was purely functional]

From a collection that began in 1990 and numbers more than 500 artworks, the Bunker displays 150 pieces. Boros has expressed his desire to collect only works that are representative of the “here and now” and has amassed works by heavy-hitters like Damien Hirst, Anselm Reyle and Olafur Eliasson. The decision to display the collection in a historic artifact might seem odd, but the interaction between art and its setting captures the spirit resonating in Berlin and adds a new dimension to contemporary pieces that are so often viewed in a white cube rather than a concrete refuge.

“To buy the Bunker, I needed just 10 seconds,” Boros said. “It was love at the first glance. I was attracted by the impossibility to defeat it.” In keeping with this philosophy, the Bunker became its owner’s own canvas, a masterwork designed to display the work of others. Boros has a reputation for being a scrupulous buyer; he says he’s never made a purchase he regrets. He doesn’t so much invest in art as invest in artists. In the same vein as many famous collectors, in general Boros will follow an artist’s career, collecting multiple pieces, developing a bond of friendship through patronage. In order to “defeat” the space, as he puts it, [yes?] he arms the Bunker with the visionary works of the artists he most truly believes in. “The communication and collaboration with the artists reassured me,” says the collector.

With only a handful of the installations in the Bunker created specifically for the space, Boros has adopted the practice of inviting artists there and asking them to pick the rooms in which the pieces would best be displayed.

Preparing the Bunker for contemporary installations has been a rigorous process in and of itself. Concrete walls and ceilings had to be removed according to Boros’ designs, using tools with diamond blades. When the concrete debris was removed by hand, the Bunker’s 120 rooms decreased to 80. The ceilings of each room, about seven and a half feet according to Speer’s plan, were in some cases elevated to 42 feet.

The renovations have played an essential role in replacing Speer’s conception with the visions of the artists whose work is shown here. In Spanish-born artist Santiago Sierra’s installation Construction and Installation of 12 Forms of 75 x 75 x 800 cm Organized in Two Spaces, three 26-foot-long rectangular wooden blocks are laid across two rooms through square holes cut in the wall. The installation was originally shown in the Carlier/Gebauer Gallery in Berlin in 2002, and Boros brought Sierra the bunker to situate his piece in two rooms, the key stipulation of presenting the installment.  

The work of Eliasson, a friend of the collector’s who lives in Berlin, is a major element in the Bunker. His glowing orb, Berlin Colour Sphere, from 2006, presents the first dose of color viewers see in the vessel, a snaking combination of speckled steel and bare concrete walls and ceilings lit by sterile fluorescent lights until the rooms open to installations. The walls in the room containing the orb, which is mounted from the ceiling, are white in order to gather the reflected light—red, yellow, green, blue—and envelop the viewer. From the second floor, a removed ceiling allows a viewer to bask in the color sphere from above and witness its sun-like reflection on the concrete floor.

Eliasson’s Ventillator, a minimalist installation composed of a fan mounted from the ceiling that oscillates around the room, lives in the only space specifically designed for an installation, according to Boros, which the collector calls the “most poetic room in the Bunker.”

In another room, Reyle presents an old hay wagon painted in neon yellow and illuminated by black lights. The piece, like the Bunker, takes an old object and makes it new by means of slight alterations. Reyle also used the black lights to illuminate neon flecks of paint on the wall, which were part of the original Bunker, intended to help occupants see when the light is dimmed.

In order to reflect Boros’ pursuit of the present, the collection in the Bunker will remain mutable, a promise from the collector that sets his collection apart from others in the city. “We intend to change the exhibition and to display another part of the collection in spring 2012,” Boros says. “The approach will be the same.” And thus, just like Berlin, for the bunker some things change while others are set in concrete.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: July 2011

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