In Berlin, a World War II bunker is repurposed to house an eclectic collection of modern art

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This fortresslike superstructure was formerly a World War II bunker in the Mitte section of Berlin. Its renovation took four years. It’s now home to an art exhibition space. Architects also added a glass-enclosed penthouse living space for the art collection’s owners.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a serious student of World War II, and that while I’m traveling, I seek out related sights. Berlin, of course, played a pivotal starring role, and tourists can easily spend a lot of time pinpointing WWII landmarks — or plaques noting what used to stand at the site — before moving on to the later history of Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the destruction of same in 1989, the resulting Reunification, and Berlin being proclaimed Germany’s capital in 1991.

My Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned a WWII bunker under the entry “Sammlung Boros,” explaining that it was now an art gallery, housing the modern collection of Christian and Karen Boros. Reading this description before I departed home failed to make the impression that this was literally next door to my hotel.

When I booked the Best Western Hotel Berlin-Mitte for my visit in May 2012, I knew that it was within walking distance of the historic Brandenburg Gate and “Museum Island” with the world-class Pergamon Museum and nine other worth-a-visit sights. The hotel website made no mention of the bunker.

So when I got off the bus from Berlin Tegel airport and was walking toward my hotel, what I wasn’t expecting was a looming concrete superstructure.

The first question I asked at reception was: “What is that?” And the second: “Can I go inside?”

Answers: An above-ground bunker built during World War II, and “yes.” As it turned out, the staff was used to these questions, because I was handed a full page of information on the bunker, which covered some of its history from shelter to exhibition space.

I walked over to check on availability. Tours were being given only on a limited schedule, and they were fully booked, but I was advised to come on Saturday. I was told that cancellations or no-shows might open up a space, which is exactly what happened.

The bunker was officially called Reichsbahnbunker Friedrichstrasse (State Railway Bunker) based on its proximity to the Berlin-Friedrichstrasse railway station. The structure was intended to protect fleeing station passengers during Allied air raids, people who lived nearby and those who might be attending a performance at the German Theatre.

In 1942, the bunker, constructed using forced labor, was completed, under the supervision of the architect for the Third Reich, Albert Speer. It could accommodate up to 2,000 civilians in its 120 windowless rooms, each just 7.5 feet in height, over five stories. Toward the end of the war, more than twice that number huddled in fear during Allied bombing runs. Despite having a “sophisticated” ventilation system, it must have been stiflingly hot.

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An interior view of a bunker room.

The bunker’s exterior dimensions: More than 52 feet tall (16 meters) and a bit less than 125 feet long (38 meters) on each side. The walls were more than 6.5 feet (2 meters) thick, constructed of a special “blue” concrete and rebar. The concrete was said to fully harden only after 30 years. Each of the four sides had an entrance with stairwells.

“Rauchen verboten” — smoking prohibited — dating to the original construction, was still evident on some interior walls, as I saw on my tour. Other WWII evidence included thick black lettering indicating floor level and directional arrows pointing the way.

The dour gray exterior, except for some ground-level graffiti, showed pockmarks left by bullets, but otherwise was in remarkable condition. It appeared every bit as formidable and fortresslike as when it was first built.

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The bunker, built by forced labor, was completed in 1942, under the supervision of Albert Speer, known as the architect for the Third Reich. This modern-day graffiti would not have been tolerated.

The trendy Mitte district today is lined with a profusion of shops, cafés and eateries. Prior to the war, it was home to a large Eastern European Jewish population, serviced by stores selling kosher goods and about 20 prayer rooms.

When the war was over, the Allied victors — including the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France — partitioned the city into four zones. The Mitte section fell under Soviet administration, and the Red Army used the bunker to house prisoners of war.

By 1949, political friction ignited the Soviets’ acrimonious split from the other Allied powers, and the landscape evolved into the antithetical German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

Over the ensuing years, the bunker warehoused a variety of goods, from textiles to fruit (including oranges and bananas) imported from Cuba, earning it the nickname “Banana Bunker.”

After Reunification, it became a noted venue of techno music, fetish parties, an erotic trade fair and other envelope-pushing behavior. Spent cigarettes, other unsavory debris, phosphoric paint and graffitied, slimy walls — the product of too many sweaty people in too close a space with inadequate ventilation — left the bunker the worse for wear.

Finally, in 2003, Polish-born Christian Boros, an advertising entrepreneur and art collector, bought the property and hired a team to undertake its renovation. That included construction of a modernist, glass-surrounded penthouse and terrace for the Boros family. Karen had a background in art history, and Christian was, in fact, a client of hers at an art gallery, selling him some of the pieces that have been on exhibit in the bunker.

Displaying a wide-ranging art collection in a transformed bunker might seem like an odd choice, but other unlikely buildings paved the way. Consider that the Gare d’Orsay — a former train station and hotel in Paris, completed in 1900 — has been home since 1986 to a magnificent collection of Impressionists, other paintings and artwork, shown to their advantage in abundant natural lighting at the Musée d’Orsay.

Or the Tate Modern in London, on the city’s south bank of the River Thames, that was formerly the post-WWII-built Bankside Power Station. Closed from 1981 to 1996, it was refitted and reopened in May 2000. Its large unobstructed spaces are perfect for some of its massive modern and contemporary art installations.

During the Berlin bunker’s overhaul into an art gallery — one year of planning and four of conversion — 40 of the 120 rooms were eliminated, and some reconfigured in order to accommodate oversize artwork.

“Artists make a huge contribution by deciding on the placement of the works and installing them themselves,” Christian Boros told Silke Hohmann, an editor at German art magazine Monopol, in a 2013 interview. “We view the presentation as a collection of small one-person shows,” he said. Boros, who has been collecting since the 1990s, has been quoted as saying that he buys what he doesn’t understand.

The bunker’s historical significance isn’t lost on Boros either, as he said that foreign diplomats and politicians are often more interested in the structure than the art.

“You can’t really fail to notice that it’s a Nazi bunker,” Boros told Hohmann. “Foreign guests want to see how a new generation deals with the fascist legacy. No one can or would want to deny the origin of the building.”

Karen Boros told Hohmann in the same interview: “We’re happy over the fact that political ­figures … come here because they’re interested in how an example of building ­history is dealt with today. If they leave with even a little enthusiasm for contemporary art, all the better.”

When it opened its first full exhibition in 2008, the gallery had just two employees. That’s grown into several dozen now, many of whom lead the 55 tours per week, lasting about 90 minutes each. That first exhibit was up for about four years — this was the one I saw — and drew more than 120,000 viewers.

The second exhibit ran from 2012 to 2016, and drew more than 200,000 visitors. A third is being mounted now and is scheduled to open May 4.

I was unfamiliar with many of the artists and their works, and to say that the collection was head-scratchingly eclectic would be an understatement. Much of it was “conceptual art open to interpretation,” our guide said.

There were about 130 installations and 20 photographs, representing 21 artists, just a smattering, really, of the more than 700 in the total Boros collection, which includes many dozen other artists.

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The swinging, clapper-less bell in the entrance lobby is called “For Whom” (2008) by Kris Martin. The bell was purchased from a decommissioned church. (Yes, it’s out of focus.)

We were not allowed to take photographs of the art, aside from the entrance lobby. Many of the works were sculptures, and more than a few were installations incorporating the use of lighting or mirrors. With so much to see, our guide didn’t have the time to explain each one.

Fortunately, the website has more than 60 images from the 2008-2012 exhibition, so I was able match the artist and title to go with what I wrote in my notebook. The website also has more than 50 renderings of the 2012-2016 display. Click on “Exhibition” on the page’s left column.

The first room had a large multihued glass ball with interior mirrors, hanging from the ceiling, and the colors seemed to change as we circled the ball. This was called “Berlin Colour Sphere” (2006), from Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

In the next room was a wide, clear cylinder of water perched on a round-glass-topped pedestal, with a skinny internal cyclone in the middle, also by Eliasson, called “Vortex for Lofoten” (1999).

Another work was a tall, thick lightning bolt, made of wood and painted black, and it zigzagged through three rooms. Our guide said the untitled work from 2007 was by Polish artist Monika Sosnowska and that it illustrated themes of “disorientation and irritation.”

In one of the rooms upstairs, the performance art installation “Tom Kha Soup” (1991) by Argentine-born Rirkirt Tiravanija resembled a kitchen, with deep metal cooking pots, plastic bowls and utensils, in which someone had prepared a meal for a crowd, served, and then left the cleanup undone.

“Fountain,” a 1994 work also by Tiravanija, who grew up in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada, was a series of randomly placed white wooden stools. Natural wood water barrels sat atop two of the stools, and discarded plastic white cups were strewn on the floor and on some of the stool seats.

Also upstairs was the piece “Temporarily Placed” (2002) by Elmgreen and Dragset. (That’s Michael Elmgreen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Ingar Dragset, born in Trondheim, Norway. They teamed up in 1995 and live and work in Berlin.)

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The ragged section left of the window on the bottom row is where a chunk of concrete was removed for the art installation “Temporarily Placed.”

A lifelike male body with a bandaged left arm was reclining in a real hospital bed in a sterile white space with overhead fluorescent lighting. He faced a metal-framed glass door, behind which a vast chunk had been cut out of the exterior concrete, giving an excellent view of the thickness of the original wall. The gigantic hole allowed daylight in, which wasn’t the case in many of the other rooms.

What’s more, the room looked directly across to the hotel where I was staying. I can only imagine what guests thought at night when peering out of their windows at the deathly still patient, especially if they weren’t aware of the bunker next door.

Quick reference: Sammlung Boros, Reinhardtstrasse 20, Berlin. The gallery is closed through May 3, as it installs a new exhibit. Tours are limited to 12, with guide, and last about 90 minutes. Tours in German depart on the hour; tours in English on the half-hour. Thursdays-Sundays, times vary by day. Reservations required via the website. Admission: 12 euros. Individual tours and group tours also available. http://www.sammlung-boros.de

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