König Galerie; St Agnes Kirche
Brutalism often seems as if it were made for London. The harsh sunless British autumns, with their depressingly pensive showers make these concrete brutes loom like ominous petrified robots, their facades almost melting into the colourless smog, mist and clouds of the harsher months. The shingle layered, rigid and rugged monoliths that peer down at the ever changing, ever fickle and finance obsessed city, stand as testaments to time and extreme ideals concerning aesthetic in a time when it seems as though all architects can focus on are luxury high-rises destined to be vacant for their lifetimes. They help define and cement all that we know as ‘urban’; all that we understand as inner-city. They are overexposed in visual media, over criticised by the general public and undervalued by many of its residents. Having spent a good deal of my childhood within an earshot of Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, it’s impossible to think of West London with its complex of rail and motorways without imagining the presence of the estate, and its many other concrete relatives, standing almost like old concrete casts of a futuristic device yet to be invented. For all that it’s worth, and as much as it divides opinion, London’s Brutalist buildings were able to happen because London is a city unafraid to experiment; something that is so easy to take for granted.
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why I fell so in love with St Agnes Church in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Surrounded by little more than streets of Berlin’s safe and sensibly designed (yet somewhat imposing) apartments and a U1 U-bahn train line, it makes its mark in a relatively sleepy neighborhood in a way that seems so natural, contrasting with the very statement orientated size and scale of London’s incarnations. Consistently inconsistent employment and close proximity to the gallery meant that I was able to visit it for a number of exhibitions during my time living there, each one curated in a way that brought out a different personality of the building. But, for a structure so radical, so transcendental with its smooth segmented stand-alone tower and epic skylit atrium, it often seems almost impossible to imagine it as a former place of worship. Yet, there is something undeniably regal about it. The way in which its flawless stone floors align with the neighboring colossal coarse walls, with unashamed gaps and crevasses, makes it feel perfectly imperfect; a nearly completed offering of a fashionably lax pedant. The way in which light is distributed in narrow, fleeting strips throughout the building, beautifies its harsher faces; a make-up that brings out the true, imposing unconventional beauty of the raw grey stone.
As safe as much of Berlin’s architecture seems to be, it was Johann König who dared to see this once dilapidated and unloved building as a potential theatre of visual and immersive art, restoring and transforming the product of brutalist architect Werner Düttmann into an international, yet humble place for worship, of a different kind altogether.