About things: Désiré Feuerle on the roof of the bunker that he has had converted into the museum for his collection.

In Conversation: Désiré Feuerle
Fine art inside a coarse shell

It is cold, feels 20° colder than outside in Berlin’s summer weather. We are sitting in a sparse meeting room in the office wing, which John Pawson added to this onetime telecommunications bunker. It is a strange, completely closed, two-storey concrete block on Hallescher Ufer, diagonally opposite Deutsches Technikmuseum and the park on Gleisdreieck. The East German State Railways once wanted to install its main signalling equipment here, well protected from the bombs of World War II, but the war was over before the building was finished. The concrete block was never intended for people, and somehow there is still a sense of that here beneath this reinforced concrete ceiling over 3 m thick. No, this building is not welcoming, and not welcoming on the ground floor either whose flat, open hall with its massive, square concrete pillars is reminiscent of an underground car park. Even though from the outside the building appears to be two-storey, the only thing above this flat hall is the reinforced concrete ceiling. Surprisingly enough, the second, larger level is below it, and the exhibition tour leads you down new stairs right behind the thick entrance. As if to further enforce the feeling of hollowness, all the fitted units of the lower level are painted in a dark colour.

When we met, the Feuerle Collection was not yet officially open. True, the building could already be viewed briefly during Gallery Weekend in April, and in the summer was used as a venue by Berlin Biennale. But Désiré Feuerle does not open his first exhibition until October; this is why conversion work is still underway on both the office and building itself inside and out. In the midst of this unfinished work Feuerle relates with infectious cheerfulness how he came upon this building in the first place, and why John Pawson is precisely the right architect for this task.

Florian Heilmeyer: Mr Feuerle, for years I cycled past this bunker without noticing it. Although it’s in the middle of Berlin, only a stone’s throw away from Potsdamer Platz, and although it’s clearly visible from the elevated railway and the street, this solid building appears strangely invisible. How did it catch your eye?

Désiré Feuerle: That is indeed a fundamental quality of the building: It has a highly discreet and low-key aura, you might imagine it were undercover. it is so inconspicuous. Back then, I was looking for a location for my collection – not only in Berlin, but also in Venice, Istanbul, Spain and China.

You first worked as a curator in the 1980s in Cologne. Did you also search for a suitable location there?

Désiré Feuerle: No, that was not an option for me at all. I mean, it was a brilliant, exciting time in Cologne. The city was small, but very international. Somehow everyone was always coming by in Cologne. I started with Michael Werner and also curated my own exhibitions there; at Rafael Jablonka I then combined Beuys, Baselitz, Yves Klein and Brice Marden with Gothic and baroque Madonna statues and religious items and at Monika Sprüht I had sculptures by Rosemarie Trockel enter into a dialogue with emerald earrings and Burmese terracottas from the 15th century. Later, in my own premises I juxtaposed Trockel’s works with historical, scientific instruments, and combined works of art by Gilbert & George with antique clocks.

These juxtapositions fascinated me; they gave the historical objects something of a contemporary feel, and something ageless to the contemporary ones. For me it was essential that these juxtapositions be appreciated by an international audience. But Cologne changed at breakneck speed after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, you only met local people there. So I had to leave, it was a very quick decision and almost a flight. For a few years I travelled through Asia, got to know the countries and people, and started to collect sculptures and this wonderful marble furniture. For years I had no fixed abode and didn’t have the feeling I needed one. Until I thought, but what do I do with all these pieces then, where could I install them? Some of the items are pieces of furniture weighing tons that you can’t just put up somewhere else.

In other words, you needed a specific place for your collection?

Désiré Feuerle: Precisely. But first of all it was just an idea in a number of variations. First of all, I thought it had to be an abandoned monastery in Spain, a place in the sense of a totally incredible space bordering on an imaginary world.

The punch of several hundred tons of naked concrete: the ground floor of the former telecoms bunker

So how did it end up being a bunker in Berlin?

Désiré Feuerle: I suppose my search wasn’t all that systematic. Like I said, there were many possible options, but ultimately I decided Berlin was a good place, and knew somebody here who wanted to show me a few really special buildings.

What were your criteria for the search?

Désiré Feuerle: I suppose I didn’t formulate my wishes all that precisely. Above all, the buildings had to be suitable as exhibition venues, and have a special atmosphere. I probably said I would like to see the kind of buildings of which other people say: That is just not on, that is too crazy. For example, we also looked at an old crematorium and a former prison. Berlin really offers an amazingly large selection in this regard.

So what ultimately made you choose this bunker?

Désiré Feuerle: I simply had the right gut feeling straight away. On the flat roof there are these dark, square concrete tubes, which were installed there as bombproof protection for the ventilation shafts. After all, the building was to be the main control centre for all the railway’s telecommunication systems, so it had to have a good ventilation system. It’s similar today with server farms. So the bunker has all these wonderful cubes of reinforced concrete on the roof, painted dark – that immediately made me think of Donald Judd. Sometimes, I take guests to the parking lot behind the building; you can see this composition of the cubes best from there.

You said your collection also includes large heavy objects. Currently, for example, you are showing a solid marble table from the 17th century in the bunker. Did you feel similar about discovering this table as you did about finding this building?

Feuerle: I showed the building to a friend: We were both standing inside, it was covered in graffiti, parts of it were still flooded, and water was dripping because water will also find a way through a 3-meter-thick reinforced concrete ceiling, and the friend said: “You’re crazy. How are you going to manage that?” That made me all the more determined. Like when someone in a swimming pool says you would never dare jump from the 10 mter board. And then you do it. Sometimes you should not hesitate too long, but have to risk it, otherwise the opportunity slips away.

Precious Chinese items: female Godhead and stone plate from the Han Dynasty in the Feuerle Collection

I guess you didn’t get a feasibility study, or something similar done before you bought it.

Désiré Feuerle: (laughs) No, what exactly could we have tested? It was obvious it was going to be difficult. We went about it a bit like architects, knocked against the walls, and towards the end of the construction phase we even discovered hidden installation shafts.

How did you happen upon John Pawson, did you know him before?

Désiré Feuerle: No. During my travels I had met a few Japanese architects. It struck me that this construction project and the Japanese way of conceiving architecture would make a good fit. But after a few discussions I was very disappointed by the one or other of them. One, who was at the very top of my list, asked me on the spot whether it was an option to tear everything down, because the building was very dominant, after all. Then I asked him what he meant by that, and when I realized he was serious, we went our separate ways.

So how did you end up with Pawson?

Désiré Feuerle: He was recommended to me, and I felt good about him right away. He was a good listener. I visited him in London, and after I’d spent a long time telling him about my collection, I asked him whether he would be interested in such a project at all. At that he smiled and said: Why would I sit here for 2 ½ hours, if I wasn’t?

Harihara figure dating from the 7th or 8th century in the Feuerle Collection

In an interview Pawson compared the atmosphere of the bunker with the temples of Angkor Wat. Is that not a little bit over the top?

Désiré Feuerle: Of course. But it shows how sensitively he approached the topic. When I visited the building with him for the first time, he was very quiet, and looked at everything very closely. Then he said: “Désiré, this is not a bunker, it’s a monastery. We have to take care not to destroy anything here.” He did not begin his design by determining what needed to be altered, but first of all decided what things needed to be preserved exactly as we had found them.

What role did the bunker owned by Christian Boros – which is not that far away – play you?

Désiré Feuerle: Naturally, I know Christian Boros and his bunker, but I don’t see many similarities. His collection has a totally different focus, and his building has many levels and numerous small rooms. Here we have two large, wide levels with massive concrete pillars. When I was searching for a location, I was just as concerned about finding the right rooms as the right atmosphere. It was pure coincidence it turned out being a bunker.

Would a new building have been an option for you at all?

Désiré Feuerle: No, at least not in Berlin. There are so many interesting buildings here that offer similar potential that you don’t necessarily need to build something new.

The marvelous materials for the Lohan bed dating from the 17th century contrast sharply with the barren concrete architecture

At the beginning of the year a new art museum opened in Basel designed by Swiss architects Christ und Gantenbein, a solid, highly visible building with a lot of exposed concrete. At the opening Emanuel Christ said their aim had been to achieve a “physically binding architecture:” and added that “Having to deal with the architecture is interesting for artists and curators alike. We want to create rooms, which offer resistance.” Can you relate to those comments? In choosing the bunker were you also looking for rooms that “offer resistance”?

Désiré Feuerle: Hm. (ponders things for a long time, then decides) No, not really, no. I was not looking for a building that would provide me with some sort of resistance. This building had certain specifications, and we had to find ways of dealing with them. I found those challenges interesting. Even if I built something new, I would ask the architects to build something neutral, not something with resistance. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a fantastic sculpture, and doubtless the most beautiful building by Frank Gehry, I have ever seen. But inside it pushes itself too much into the foreground, the art always has to work against the rooms. When we started working on the bunker, John Pawson always said we have to be extremely subtle in order to create space for the art. It was more a case of cleaning up the building, adopting a new focus and reorganising it well. That is why on the ground floor we installed three white walls on the sides behind which we keep all the technology concealed. All the details were important: from the doors and the reception through to the power outlets, everything had to be very low-key and inconspicuous.

You are now showing your collection in a rough, coarse building with a lot of concrete. Is the contrast between the course shell and the fine art in it not rather great?

Désiré Feuerle: The real contrast is the one between Berlin and my collection. Most things I collect are very fine and elegant, while on the whole Berlin definitely comes across as somewhat coarser. You are laughing, but I mean that positively. For me that is a constructive contrast. The items become more alive here. I combine my historical pieces with works by contemporary artists. I'm interested precisely in eliminating this difference: after all, the historical objects exist just as much as the new ones in the now of our present-day. In other words, for me as an observer and collector they are both “contemporary” in the sense that they are real and not past objects. I would like to demonstrate this contemporaneity in my exhibitions. With all its parallel contrasts Berlin seems to me to be a very good place to do that.

The Feuerle Collection
Hallesches Ufer 70
10963 Berlin

Reopening October 15, 2016