FOR Johann König, there is something special about churches, 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 the art with its spiritual past,” Mr König says.
He is one of Germany’s most successful young gallerists, representing many artists well-known in the international art world. Since 2015, his main display space, the König Galerie, in Berlin, has been in St Agnes’s, a former Roman Catholic church built in the brutalist style in the 1960s. As a gallery, it is spectacular.
He is now looking for other decommissioned churches, in the UK and elsewhere, to convert into galleries, but says that it is not easy dealing with the church authorities. “We have written lots of letters, to make clear we are sincere in what we’d like to do with the buildings.”
Mr König, who is 40, is an unlikely art dealer and enthusiast for church architecture. A freak accident when he was a teenager damaged his eyesight, leaving him partially sighted — unusual for someone selling visual art. He says that his poor vision forced him to develop his own distinct approach, including focusing on artists, not just their art, and on breaking down barriers to the often élitist art world.
Moreover, his parents — Kasper König, a famous German art curator, and Edda Köchl-König, an actress and illustrator — were, he says, determinedly anti-Church. When he was growing up in western Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, 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, or Berlin, or Singapore, and you don’t know the difference. This is a shame.”
This realisation drove him to look for spaces imbued with more meaning. “When you ask architects about their favourite projects, they often say churches and museums, because they are about the space in itself, not just about the function of the building.”
“In both museums and churches you have an intimate experience — but it is one that you share with others, too. I find this a really interesting experience.
Roman März, courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE Berlin/London/Seoul/ViennaSt Agnes’s, Kreuzberg, in west Berlin
“You are in a church, your voice goes down, the light changes, and you have a reaction to the physical building, and others do, too, and you share this special experience with them, without knowing them. You could call this a spiritual experience.”
St Agnes’s appealed to Mr König because of its history and its architectural style. Its brooding appearance has changed little, judging from rhe old black-and-white photos. 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 that he chose, brutalism, originated in Britain in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with brutality, Mr König says: the term comes from a French phrase for exposed concrete, the preferred material for the style. In fact, brutalism’s proponents believed in creating public buildings for the common good: a new social utopia.
In this instance, the church was part of ambitious plans to rebuild west Berlin after the destruction of the Second World War, especially the bomb sites in the centre of the city. Some of the bricks used were taken from destroyed buildings.
THE church was part of a 1960s pioneering social-housing scheme, the “Spring Project”, in Kreuzberg, a working-class area known these days also as a multi-cultural hub with many people of Turkish origin, and as a trendy party district.
The church and estate were built in an isolated corner of the city, very near the Berlin Wall, which divided the street on which the church sits.
Shrinking congregations led to a decision to deconsecrate St Agnes’s in 2005. Its organ was moved to a neighbouring church. It was initially rented by an Evangelical Free Church, but that did not last, and the building fell into disrepair.
The huge nave, 40 metres long and 20 metres high, was designed to seat more than 1000 worshippers. Old photos show rows of plain wooden pews and no windows except skylights.
“When you entered the church in its original state, your eyes were immediately drawn up to the sky, to God,” Mr König says.
Mr König and his team of architects divided the nave horizontally with what he calls a “gigantic table-top”: a new first floor, supported by columns. This created space for a shop and two smaller galleries, one in a former side chapel.
The main exhibition area is entered by stairs to the new first floor. The room, still 15 metres high, retains the feel of a church, “a sense of contemplation”, Mr König says.
I visited on a Sunday, when the gallery was busy. Visitors appeared momentarily overwhelmed as they entered the nave, pausing to absorb the combination of the space and the art, and some of them taking 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 has been installed. Panels on the walls are designed to avoid right-angled corners. There are narrow gaps between the panels where they meet, which giving a sense of infinity as you look along the walls.
The overall redesign nevertheless caused controversy. “It was a huge task to convince the listed-building authority of what we wanted to do. They thought we would destroy the space. In fact, we have elevated the experience of being in it.”
Mr König and his wife, Lena, who runs the gallery business with him, live with their children in the priest’s apartment. The couple have also created a lush, peaceful sculpture garden in the compound.
THE gallery’s location is a challenge for wealthy art collectors, Mr König’s main client base. It is a ten-minute walk from one of the less appealing U-Bahn stops in Berlin, and, on the way, you pass high-rise blocks of flats and wander through a windswept concrete shopping and community centre.
Mr König writes in his autobiography Blind Gallerist (to be published in English this year) that the venture was hard to sell to his friends and advisers. “Almost everyone thought it was absolutely hideous,” he writes.
But art should be accessible to all, he says, not just to the super-rich. He estimates that fewer than one per cent of his visitors buy an artwork. Ties to the local community are important. Children from the school opposite visit; there are free guided tours (entry is free); and the gallery is staffed by local people, who “sometimes tell us they were baptised or married here, and how they appreciate the building’s being put to good use”.
Attempts to reproduce the project are usually discouraged by byzantine ecclesiastical regulations and structures. Also, the space has to work: he is aware of decommissioned churches in the UK which have had conversions, but mostly, he says, “their energy is gone.” Finding a church in London would be good; but people would be prepared to travel to a great space, he believes.
He sees his approach as an opportunity for church decision-making bodies, especially in Britain, where brutalism and its focus on creating buildings with a social purpose originated. Church planners and architects in the past “were so progressive, embracing this brutalist architecture and building these post-war churches all over the place”, he says.
“I think this element is relatively unknown. By us 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 in the gallery are quite packed.”