Bunker Chic

“Berlin has been called an open book for urban-development strategies,” Realarchitektur cofounder Jens Casper says. “After reunification, planners thought the city would grow to ten million inhabitants. Rather it lost population.” The consequent oversupply of buildings spells cheap rent for artists who have fashioned wide swaths of nineteenth-century and Weimar-era housing into studios, galleries, and hangouts. It has also provided something of an academic specialty for Casper and his partner, Petra Petersson, who are collaborating with the Institute of Applied Urbanism on Schneller Wohnen (“Faster Living”), a series of residential concepts for abandoned railways and empty structures.

The architects recently brought some of those ideas to life by adapting a 65-year-old air-raid bunker on Reinhardtstrasse into a gallery for art patron Christian Boros. “Berlin is one huge conversion,” Boros says, “and I was always interested in renovating a building.” In 2003 he purchased the bunker, in the Mitte neighborhood, and retained Realarchitektur to redesign the 26,900-square-foot interior as a gallery topped with a new 4,850-square-foot apartment.

With 5.9-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls and a roof depth mea­suring 9.8 feet, the bunker is a weighty reminder of wartime. But even though the fortresslike facade was riddled with bullet holes and the interior uncomfortable, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) could not demolish the substantial building without risking damage to adjacent structures. Instead it was used as a fruit warehouse and had a four-year stint as a nightclub. Casper and Petersson also remember attending an exhibition there in 2003. “What was fascinating was the possibility, with the existing layout, for these artists to coexist without a direct hierarchy,” Petersson recalls of the 100 rooms on five identical floors. “The lack of views concentrated attention on the art.”

The architects stripped GDR-era extensions from Karl Bonatz’s original design, now a landmark, but otherwise retained the exterior vestiges of the past, scars and all. Though the raw concrete interiors were also part of the bunker’s legacy, the brief here was more open-ended. “There was only one room Christian suggested for a specific artwork, a simple triple-height space for an untitled ‘propeller’ piece by Olafur Eliasson,” Casper says. The architects preserved the layout but incised ceilings at several points to create multistory galleries. “The volume shifts in the spaces are quite playful,” Casper adds, explaining that they permit multiple perspectives of the same artwork. Many of the remaining 80 rooms will house new site-specific commissions: John Bock has already completed a video, and a Santiago Sierra piece is on its way.

For the apartment, Realarchitektur used the bunker as a muse. “The glass is of course a counterpoint to the concrete,” Casper says of the apartment’s transparent skin. Raw finishes and exposed elements, such as a raised kitchen floor, evoke the materials and topography downstairs. And even though Boros has appointed the space with luxurious modern furniture, a plush penthouse is not what he had in mind. “In German, listed buildings are called Denkmal, which you could translate as an imperative: Reflect history!” Boros says. “The bunker is not a fairy-tale castle. I wanted to convert this building into a place for contemporary art, but the history was important to me as well.”

Find out more facts about this subject on the Reference Page: October 2007

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