Beyond Buildings


The Weight of the Past

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Photo: Architonic


All art museums are basically bunkers, but the Boros Collection in Berlin is an actual one. Opened three years ago, this private institution that holds over 500 works of art occupies a 27,000-square-foot installation that Albert Speer designed as part of Adolf Hitler’s plan for Germania, or a new Berlin. Starting in 1942, the German railroad company used it to shelter up to 2,000 workers and their families during air raids. After the war, the communist regime stored bananas and other tropical fruits there.  When the wall came down, it was the site of some of the largest techno and S&M sex parties in the city. Now its 9-foot-thick walls house art, while the owner’s 9,000-square-foot-penthouse, complete with swimming pool, perches on top. Military defense has given away to the preservation of culture, and the consumption of view has replaced surveillance.

The Boros Bunker is not a thing of beauty.  Perfectly symmetrical, it is a 125-square-foot square with slightly protruding entrances on all sides. Inside, renovation architects Realarchitektur removed ceilings and walls (using diamond saws to cut through the heavily reinforced concrete) to open up higher spaces, put in stair and elevator shafts, and reduce the number of cellular rooms from 120 to 80. The place still feels oppressive, as there is no clear center and only one (new) window.  Boros and his designers purposefully left some of the graffiti from every era of occupation—n Russian, German, and English—on some of the walls, as distilled cries of anguish, victory, extacy, or boredom.

It is that claustrophobia—the result, perhaps, of the weight not just of the material, but of history as well—that makes the Bunker so successful. Within the always- present concrete structure,  the works of art, many of them site-specific, demand your full attention. The moment you walk in, you confront a sense of doom in the form of a silent bell, swinging back and forth over your head.  Artist Kris Martin calls it For Whom the Bell Tolls. You cannot escape the past even in this container for the most contemporary art.

Photos: Sammlung Boros


The collection, which Wuppertal-based, Polish-born, 45-year old advertising executive Christian Boros and his wife, Karen, assembled over the last three decades, paints a picture of contemporary society marked by history, but trying to find its place in the world. The collection veers between the phenomenological, with a strong representation of Berlin-based Olafur Eliasson, and the gritty, mirroring the lives that new Berliners and others are piecing together out of the detritus of consumer culture.  My favorite here (perhaps because I own one of his works) is the work of Florian Slotawa, who uses cast-off shopping carts, dime-store paintings, and IKEA cabinets to create wry, but sculpturally expressive assemblies that condense how and with what we live.

Mere mortals, and even bloggers, are not allowed into the Miesian aerie the Boros’ occupy and which you can just glimpse from across the street, but from photographs it appears to be everything the Bunker is not: open, light, and thoroughly modern. The base is thus a closed vault where the past frames the anxieties and exuberances of the past. The whole is in many ways exactly the opposite of what Speer and Hitler intended, ironically keeping openness, the spirit of revolt, purposeful and polymorphous perversion, and just simply color and shape alive within the essence of control. It made me realize that sometimes, in order to be truly effective, architecture has to be so clear and so present that it lets you see all that it is not.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.