From church to art gallery: the 2nd brutal life of St.Agnes Church

Is it possible to give new life to a deteriorated concrete building or is demolition necessary? And, if we are talking about a place of worship, how might it be adapted to another use?

We are against demolition, of course, and there are many ways to turn a deteriorated building into a new, spectacular and useful building. A good example is St. Agnes in Berlin (Germany):  built and designed in the 1967 by Werner Düttmann, a functionalist architect and the director of the urban development for West Berlin, this church had fallen into disrepair over time. In 2011, it was acquired by prominent local art dealer, Johann König, a man determined to reinvent the neglected heritage-listed space as a gallery and exciting cultural hub.

St. Agnes church for InnovaConcrete blog post
St. Agnes Church exterior | Source:

The church is one  of the countless brutalist structures built in central and Eastern Europe; during the 1950s based on the use of raw concrete. It is an example of a widespread movement that place an emphasis on plastic forms and materials, first and foremost concrete. Starting from Unité d’Habitation, a residential design by functionalist architect Le Corbusier, a bigger and relevant architectural movement rose and transformed previous cultural and urbanistic concepts. Impressive buildings were built, grey, mostly devoid of any decorative element, expressing strength, weight and solemnity at the same time and, most important, not encumbered by the research for beauty and esthetical perfection at all costs. St. Agnes was designed and built following this architectural aim too.

The structure

Placed on the West side of Alexandrinenstraße, it shows a mighty dark grey parallelepipedal bell tower, made of concrete, topped by a cube, also made of concrete, with a slightly different colour: a light grey. Nearby are parish buildings forming a courtyard. Its interiors reference classic basilicas with a central nave higher than the ones on the sides. As with the exteriors, the  interiors are made of exposed concrete showing loopholes below the rooftop and in the presbytery that give light to the entire place. The overall structure has a laconic connotation, a clean and essential style symbolizing for the designer the presence of the sacred, of something imposingly divine that watches over that great space.

Despite its historical and architectural importance, the Church of St. Agnes has long been abandoned until Johann König, a patron of the arts, bought it and gave it new life. He decided to make it the home of the eponymous König Galerie which houses works by 39 international artists. The space inside has therefore been adapted; obtaining two rooms where artwork is exhibited; one in the main nave and one in the chapel. The Church also hosts personal exhibitions of the most famous, or emerging, contemporary artists.

St. Agnes Church interior | Source:

The meaning

Certainly, St. Agnes church, as well as other brutalist structures, does not convey an idea of beauty nor elegance for many, but this was not the intent of its creator. Quite the contrary, Werner Düttmann wanted to question architecture’s aesthetic values of his time as well as a certain type of cultural hegemony, the one from the United States, which together with the Soviet one competed, trying to establish a building practice above the other in Europe.

Structures designed in the 1950s reflect a particular socio-economic situation of their era: due to the bombing during World War II, European cities found themselves devastated and mutilated, so – in the following years – there was a need to build new buildings at moderate costs. Brutalism was the solution: a rough and inexpensive solution. From the beginning of the Cold War, it received a great consensus from civil society, especially from the left parties supported by socialists and communists. It is no coincidence, therefore, to find buildings and brutalist architecture in countries of the former Soviet Union.

The USSR made this design style its distinctive element, since it fully reflected the ideals it promoted: solidity, functionality and economic convenience. From this point of view, many institutional and social buildings were built, capable of accommodating a large number of people, where the key element became concrete, because it was cheap and simple, capable of expressing strength and power. After USSR fall at the end of Cold War, this kind of architectural expression has been demonized and the entire world lost many examples of brutalist architecture.

the second brutal life of St. Agnes Church
St. Agnes Church exterior | Source: Wikimedia Commons

St. Agnes serves as  an important example that gives voice to this kind of architecture that is too often criticized and mistreated.

It is the symbol of a precise historical era; it is a response to the historical and cultural needs of the post-war years and also a symbol of a particular political ideal. Architectural examples, such as this, have an intrinsic cultural value that cannot be underestimated and that allows us to understand even better the post-war period of a part of Europe.

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