European Capitals of Culture

Bunkers with art

During World War II the Nazis built six anti aircraft towers, called Flaks (German Flaktürme) in Vienna. They were used by the antiaircraft forces of the Third Reich against the Allied forces – set in pairs, they created a defensive triangle for the city centre. On the territory of the Third Reich there were eight such pairs – three in Berlin and two in Hamburg besides those in Vienna. Most German Flaks were destroyed after the war, but those in Austria survived. They are visible in the central cityscape – in Stiftskaserne above the museum district, in Augarten Park, and surrounded by trees in Arenbergpark close to the Belvedere – they loom above the rooftops, although many visitors to Vienna seem to ignore them.

Since the early twentieth century modern art and its institutions have been searching for more and more extraordinary sites. On the one hand in the museum world there is a competition between fabulous archi¬tectural structures with iconic status, led by the so called starchitects – among them the creator of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Frank Gehry; the author of the National Museum of 21st Century Arts MAXXI in Rome, Zaha Hadid; and or Santiago Calatrava, whose designs include the new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum – and on the other hand there is a need to find sites and adapt buildings suiting the rebellious, nomadic or destructive nature of contemporary art. Museums, centres and galleries of modern art appear inside railway stations, mines, power stations, factories, warehouses, shipyards. Large volume, history connected with production or transport, raw walls, elements of original furnishing, and a location outside the noise of the city centre – these are the features of many contemporary art institutions.

Atelier Van Lieshout "Disciplinator", installation at MAK Depot of Contemporary Art in Vienna, 2003
copyright: Wolfgang Woessner/MAK

In 1986 the Vienna Museum of Applied Arts MAK began to assemble a collection of contemporary art. This is one of the most prestigious museums in Austria – with a branch in Los Angeles (three separate sites), a branch in Brtnice run jointly with the Brno Moravian Gallery, and close cooperation with the Moscow museum of architecture. Its philosophy is regarded as a model all over the world. As the director Peter Noever says, MAK erases the dividing line between applied and visual arts, it defines itself “as both the integration and coexistence of art, architecture and design”.1 “A special characteristic of the MAK is its institutional self definition as a workshop of art and/or for artists who are able to do things here in forms that would elsewhere be impossible […].” 2 In 1994 one of the anti aircraft towers in Arenbergpark was chosen as a storage place for the expanding museum collection. Then in late 2001 and early 2002 the CAT – Contemporary Art Tower – project was born.

The tower adapted for the purposes of the museum is unique, and not only for aesthetic reasons. The great concrete mass, almost windowless and following in the footsteps of Brutalist architecture, is a monumental bulk which you cannot miss, constantly reminding you of the events of World War II. It was built in less than a year, from December 1942 to October 1943. The architectural style of all the Flaks was the work of Friedrich Tamms, represented in Vienna by Anton Ruschitzka. The tower selected for the museum is the so called combat tower (Gefechtstürme), while the one on the opposite side of a small park is a fire control tower (Leitturm, today not in use). Built on a square plan with one side fifty seven metres long, forty two metres high, it contains eight floors and a basement. It was conceived as a self sufficient fortress with its own electricity supply, a stock of drinking water, a system of ventilation, and air filtering equipment in case of a poison gas attack. The walls, from two to seven metres thick, and the structural solutions used, were designed to withstand a direct bombing attack.

Introducing art inside a military monster is not only a way of utilising almost thirteen thousand meters square of floor area, but also an attempt to confront local history, for which art is seen as a remedy. The MAK contemporary art collection is based on site specific works created by specially invited artists in residence. Many works, even those created before the CAT project was initiated, are related to the nature of the anti aircraft tower. In the case of Atelier Van Lieshout with the large installation The Disciplinator (2003) the historical reference could not have been more clear. It is a massive structure in the shape of a cage, with “walls” and “ceiling” made of metal bars and wooden furnishings. Inside the cage the artists set up a labour camp for seventy two prisoners (with twenty four bunks, two benches seating twenty four people and used for taking meals, and four washbasins), who, working in three shifts, are to produce wood shavings out of four tree trunks using thirty six saws. The work not only relates to labour camps still functioning in various parts of the world, but also is a metaphor for the contemporary system of work in corporations and of our homogenised lifestyle in general, and finally it relates to the specific nature of Flak, which – as we read in the MAK catalogue – “built by dictatorship and megalomania, is an autarkic, self sufficient megastructure”.3

There are few small, modest works in Flak MAK. The size of the place allows truly monumental works to be brought in. One of them is another installation combining references to the history of construction and to the present, namely Shortage of Water by Ilya Kabakov (2008–2009). It is a life size greenhouse with meticulously labelled beds, paths separating them and a serious problem – lack of water. This is a problem of enclosed, isolated places (like a military bunker), but also a global ecological issue. The installation Shooting into the Corner by Anish ¬Kapoor (2008/2009), concerning physical violence, is even more disturbing for the visitor. What we have here is a cannon shooting maroon coloured bullets at a wall painted white. The view of splashed sticky paint on a clean white background very strongly assaults the emotions. Is it really paint? Perhaps congealed blood? Especially as all around we see piles of splattered barrels with this substance in.

Not all the works presented in Flak talk about ultimate, fundamental situations, universal problems. For example, the ground floor is taken up by a quite large collection of cars marked with some gesture of an artist, such as the Mercedes 220A convertible painted by Hiro Yamagata with flowers (Earthly Paradise, 1993).

Exhibition of cars marked with the artists' interventions. In the background a Mercedes painted by Hiro Yamagata ("Earthly Paradise", 1993), MAK Sepot of Contemporary Art
copyright: Georg Mayer/MAK

The architectural design provides that Flak will be extended with a media and service tower (with a lift and stairs) connecting all storeys; elegant restaurants will be opened inside and the façade will serve as a display for multimedia screenings. The structure of the added tower will comprise an LED display over a dozen metres long, on which Jenny Holzer will present her comments and maxims. “Artistic interventions will encounter, and respond to, a historically charged structure, transforming the alien volume into a lively center of contemporary art,” writes Noever.4

The realisation of the CAT project, which seemed a forgone conclusion, met with the resistance of the local community. Fearing the prospect of a busy cultural centre in the vicinity, they are trying to stop the project in its tracks (for building work to begin Flak must be included in the zoning plan of the district). The museum is collecting signatures under a petition to restart the project. “This is a peaceful art project, not a disturbing invasion of a neighborhood idyll. The flak tower cannot be ignored. History must not be ignored. The flak tower will certainly not continue to exist in its present shape over the next generations; there is no better way of transforming it than through art” says the petition.5

Not only Vienna is making its reckoning with a difficult past. Another good example is Krakow, where the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK) was created in Oskar Schindler’s German Factory of Enamelled Vessels. Also here the site selected caused an uproar fired by the local media. During the debate on the site of the new institution, which lasted almost three years after the location was proposed in 2004, the problem was defined as combining contemporary art with the Jewish identity of the place and its co existence with the museum devoted to interwar and occupied Krakow being created on the factory premises in the same period. The location was decided by the municipal authorities, and only when the first exhibitions are opened will we know the feelings of the local community.

In Vienna the collection is continuously being developed, successive storeys are being opened (now the ground floor and three upper floors may be visited), and the next stage is the project of adapting a part of the building for a cultural centre with the media and service tower as an annexe. Flak MAK is to be recommended for its excellent collection, for the panorama of Vienna stretching from the roof deck (when you look carefully, you can see the remaining towers) and for the architecture itself. For me it is one of the most original attractions in the city, but unfortunately, it takes a lot of determination to enjoy it, for as a storehouse of contemporary art it is open only once a week, for four hours on Sunday afternoons, from May to November. And yet it can hardly be said to be crowded during opening hours. But perhaps this is what makes visiting the museum such an uncanny experience: chilly, half dark, raw concrete walls several metres thick, a maze of passages, no windows or glimpses of light, utility lift the only means of moving between floors, claustrophobic feeling, loneliness… And in this ambience – contemporary art with names worthy of the best world museums.

The Vienna anti aircraft tower is one of the most characteristic examples of domesticating the unwanted legacy of World War II, but not the only one. In 2010 also Wrocław decided to turn one of its war relics into a place of contemporary creativity. An air raid shelter at Strzegomski Square (called by some the Bunker) became an intermediary between the past, about which many would like to forget, and contemporary art, which many still do not comprehend.

The shelter for civilians, one of the four in Wrocław designed by Richard Konwiarz, was built in 1942. It is one of the two with a circular plan, while the remaining two are rectangular. It is a massive structure with walls eighty centimetres thick and a historicising architectural style.

At first art came here only experimentally – the bunker was the venue of the eighth edition of the SURVIVAL Festival. The festival itself – a fringe event of nomadic nature, every year appropriating for a few days spaces which are unwanted, public, closed for renovation or intermediate (like the Four Dome Pavilion next to the Centennial Hall, before the war the site of an international fair and after the war of a film studio; a deserted brewery; an abandoned Soviet garrison building) – is worthy of a separate mention. The 2010 edition in the Bunker was held under the motto Architecture as a Scene of Crime. Of course, given the location, the crime should be understood in the context of the war atrocities, and the building as a safe haven once protecting people and now serving as a refuge for art. Financial difficulties and lack of certainty if the festival would take place at all caused the organisers to associate the eponymous crime also with the rather pessimistic situation of high culture in Poland, permanently “undervalued” in the government budget.

The festival was a test for the building. Starting from 2011 it will serve as a provisional location of the Contemporary Museum Wrocław. The façade is already decorated with a mural called Klepsydra (Hourglass) by Stanisław Dróżdż, and in front of the building there is an installation by Andrzej Jarodzki Pociąg do nieba (The Train to Heaven) – a twenty metre long engine placed upright and produced probably in 1942 in the factory Linke–Hoffman–Werke AG Breslau in Wrocław. The museum is to stay here for five years until its permanent headquarters are built near the Museum of Architecture and Racławice Panorama. What will happen to the shelter then? The artistic community hopes that the building will remain a cultural site; perhaps serving as a kind of Kunsthalle for young artists, perhaps as a festival venue. I would also point to the proven Czech model, combining artistic studios with galleries (e.g. Karlin Studios in Prague) and with other fields of artistic creation (e.g. MeetFactory in Prague).