Trauma Architecture and Art: Boros Bunker Berlin

By: Leoni Schmidt

While visiting Humboldt University in Berlin a few years ago, I unwittingly came upon an imposing building near the campus, and on further enquiry found out that it was called Boros Bunker Berlin. The structure elicited a sense of deep disquiet in me. This sense stayed with me throughout my subsequent time spent inside the building with the many items exhibited as part of the permanent art collection of the Boros family, who live in a penthouse on the top floor. As I explored the interior, my sense of disquiet became exacerbated. Disquiet made way for a stronger experience: a sense of hauntedness, of pre-possession,1 mixed with disgust. I was fascinated by the ambiguous nature of my experience. On the one hand, the consistency of the building and its contents made for an aesthetic experience of alignment and, on the other hand, this very consistency seemed to celebrate a haunted past from the perspective of the present in the wealthy long-past-war centre of Berlin.

This article explores this ambiguity and argues for an aesthetics of pre-possession, wherein a consistency and coherence of expression lies within a register of sorrow, loss and stark trauma. The article also explores the vibrant new life of the repurposed building through its inhabitation by contemporary artworks, and how it becomes a counter-memorial to its own history through the inclusion of these contemporary artworks, all of which led to a “sensuous particularity of experience in the here-and-now”2 when I encountered the complex for the first time.

Boros Bunker Berlin started its life as the Reichsbahnbunker Friedrichstrasse in 1941. It was designed by Karl Donatz in line with type M1200 in the bunker typology developed under the direction of Albert Speer after the first bombings of Berlin in 1940. It was built to house 1200 people at a time but, during the last months of the war, around 4000 sought refuge within its walls. The stark interior is punctuated by the details of incarceration: spyholes, small windows closed with metal plates, ventilation shafts, signs on walls that ‘scream’ danger. The walls are 180cm thick and on the outside are furnished with architectural details referencing the Renaissance. The reason for these details is that Speer believed that this kind of building would function ultimately as a cenotaph in the envisaged world capital of ‘Germania’ following the successful outcome of the war for Germany.

After Germany lost the war, the building was used in a variety of ways, quite differently from how Speer had envisaged it. Firstly, the Red Cross took it over and used it as a prisoner-of-war centre; then it was used for the storage of tropical fruits and became known as the Banana Bunker in the 1950s. In the 1990s it became a club for techno, fetish and fantasy parties. Subsequently, theatre productions were housed in it; sado-masochistic experiments were held in it; police shut it down in 1995-96; an art exhibition opened in it in 1996; and in 2003 Christian Boros bought it. A process of reconstruction followed until the first exhibition of Boros Bunker Berlin was held from 2008 till 2012, with further groups of contemporary artworks shown more recently. There is an irony here: the works by contemporary artists fly in the face of what Hitler and Goebbels had declared fit for the German people in Munich’s Haus Der Kunst in 1937.

The reconstruction of the bunker took five years, and 1800 tonnes of concrete were removed. One hundred and twenty standardised rooms became 80 rooms with ceiling heights varying between two and 20 metres, covering an area of 3000 square metres. Despite this considerable change, many original features were retained, notably the visible heating systems and marks on floors and walls that speak of earlier inhabitation. The penthouse on the roof is hardly visible from the exterior and there is no public entrance to it. Thus, the bunker retains much of its earlier appearance, if not any of its original functions and intent. It is situated next to Humboldt University in Berlin, which lends an intellectual aura to the building and its contents. The interior houses changing exhibitions of contemporary art, mostly sculpture. The works are placed amongst the reminders of the erstwhile life of the building: WW2 telephones on walls, grey and black colours, industrial objects: boilers, iron plates, spyholes.

Christian and Karen Boros now own the building and live in the transformed rooftop in a luxurious penthouse overlooking the city of Berlin. Here, another irony is found: the history of Germany in WW2 is conflated with the desires of the wealthy consumer within our era of late capitalism, in this case a Polish immigrant who has risen to the status of a mogul in his new country, once the country that decimated his home place. In an interview with Silke Hohmann, the owners speak of how they live with the artworks and visitors in a building that has been repurposed:

You can hear that we have guests downstairs through the air vents, through our door … We smell the rubber from the friction in Sailstorfer’s work … we smell the popcorn [in another work], and also the tree hanging upside down and its leaves and branches, which scrape slowly against the floor due to the continuous turning … [and] each floor has its own very special sound ambience … The art and the guests are practically our roommates.3

The new life of the building is also evident through interest in it as an example of architectural repurposing. In the same interview, the owners speak of this interest:

We’re happy over the fact that political figures, for example, the Israeli ambassador today, come here because they’re interested in how an example of building history is dealt with today … I still remember when Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president was here. Now, due to the special history of the building, we’re on the agenda of many state leaders. You can’t really fail to notice that it’s a Nazi bunker. Foreign guests want to see how a new generation deals with the fascist legacy. No one could or would want to deny the origin of the building.4

Here one thinks of other bunker-type buildings that have recently been deployed as counter-memorials to history. Some examples are discussed in the next paragraph after a consideration here of the notion of the “countermemorial memory,” where he attempted to think about memory and trauma together: how is memory affected through trauma and how can representations of trauma create new, heterogeneous memories that counter and critically question earlier ones?6 Josó Medina paraphrases Foucault: “How do we fight against power …? Not by trying to escape it (as if liberation consisted in standing outside power altogether) but rather, by turning power(s) against itself (themselves), or by mobilizing some forms of power against others” – thus creating a counter-memorial.7 Tello takes up the argument in light of recent political realities and alerts her readers to an impulse of counter-memorial aesthetics in contemporary art as the need for a critical response becomes ever more urgent.8

Bunker-type buildings – like Boros Bunker Berlin – can function as counter-memorials to history. Boros is not alone in this endeavour. Two other examples should suffice to alert the reader to the wide use of this trope in critical contemporary art. Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial was dedicated in 2000 in Vienna’s Judenplatz. It is an impenetrable, bunker-like structure. The exterior is made of cast library shelves turned inside out, referring to the Jews as people of the Book. The many copies of the book refer to the 65,000 Jews murdered in Austria; the double doors are cast with panels inside out and no doorknobs; it cannot be entered. Here, the bunker is at once fortress, coffin, the impossibility of understanding another’s impenetrable grief. In James E Young’s book At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, the author writes: “Counter-monuments are memorial spaces that are conceived to challenge the very premise of the monument. These projects eradicate the heroic and the triumphal from their schedule, addressing instead the void left in the wake of [disaster].”9

Another bunker-type building is also to be found in Vienna, where the Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) has annexed the old bunker tower in Arendsberg Park for exhibitions. The director of MAK writes: “Introducing art inside a military monster is not only a way of utilizing almost thirteen thousand metres square of floor area but also an attempt to confront local history, for which art is seen as a remedy.”10 Dutch Atelier Lieshout held an exhibition in this space in 2011, foregrounding the state of contemporary prisons and detention centres, inserted as quasiinstallations within the vast void of the bunker’s interior.

As is the case with Vienna’s Judenplatz, this bunker qualifies for what Jill Bennett would call “pre-possessed” spaces – those spaces where trauma happened and which still seem ‘haunted’ by the memory of this trauma. Bennett curated an exhibition in 2005 called “Prepossession,” held in Sydney and Belfast, dealing with the inhabitation of place in the aftermath of conflict or dispossession. The notion of prepossession is extended in her 2006 book Emphatic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Cultural Memory in the Present), in which she explores how contemporary art interfaces with sites of trauma.11 In Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affect and Art after 9/11, she writes about how pictorial elements can enter a relational network wherein past and present can exist together through a strategy of critical recombination and reframing – through a “dynamics of interaction.”12

The combination of a pre-possessed, haunted space and a revitalised, re-purposed place can be seen in – amongst many others – eight juxtapositions of trauma architecture and contemporary artworks in Boros Bunker Berlin. These juxtapositions mobilise the power of contemporary artworks against the erstwhile trauma and the current memory of National Socialism in Germany. The first of these combinations is comprised of the placing together of a wall and floor with Roman Ondak’s sculpture titled Leave the Door Open (1999).

Here, the viewer is confronted with the old walls bearing scars and reminders of signs, and with even a suggestion of blood on the floor or a red demarcation line forbidding entrance. Through an opening in the wall one sees the immaculate, white surface of another wall further into the shallow opening. This surface reads as a door due to the inclusion of a handle. However, it does not open and the whiteness in any case signals modernist minimalism to the viewer and this means ‘hands-off.’ However, there is a moment in this encounter when one is tempted to step into the shallow space and to overcome the disjunction between the two parts of the same work: old memories meet new interventions. Boris Pofalla writes:

Does that door on the first floor of the bunker lead to a room that the guide has deliberately forgotten to show us? It’s possible … particularly taking into account that the bunker’s architecture is confusing enough to hide a whole room like that … The door alluded to here is both present and not present; it might be open, it might be locked. Where it leads remains a mystery. Into the past? Into the future? [Ondak] shows in a casual way that one can only enter certain spaces in one’s mind.13

Another door in Boros Bunker Berlin features in a second combination of art and architecture: Olafur Eliasson’s Driftwood Family of 2010 consists of a number of logs placed within the space. In this part of the ‘family’ a log is juxtaposed with a heavy, barred door on which the scars of many dramatic encounters are seen: roughly opened bars, rusted grooves, the marks of the industrial manufacture of a temporary war necessity: the heavy iron door to a bunker. The log slows down the passage of the visitor and forces one to consider the unlikely combination of industrial manufacture and an unexpected item from the natural world of the forest. Verticality versus horizontality accentuates the difference. One knows that the one is old and the other has recently been placed – almost casually – in the space. On the origins of the logs, Saskia Trebing writes: “Olafur Eliasson collected the timber on the Icelandic Coast … Now, five trunks have washed up on the shores of the Boros Collection. The bunker, once built as protection against attacks from without, has opened its doors to them.”14

A third juxtaposition shows in Thomas Ruff ’s Stars, 13h, 18ml-6o Degrees, 1992. In this combination of art and architecture, the viewer is acutely aware of the stark contrast between the rough grey walls, stained with marks of earlier activities and/or marks left behind during the reconstruction of the building, and the starkly framed night photographs of the artist. Standing in the space, one can see the bright spots indicating the presence of stars shining in the black firmament: views out of the closed space of the bunker, views that hurtle one far, far away into a space beyond the confines of the past and the present. Pofalla writes: “He chose a vertical format in keeping with the tradition of the panel painting, which also recalls a window, and indeed: three windows seem to open up in the rough cement of the hermetically sealed bunker, inviting us to look through them into outer space.”15

Walls also play an important part in their combination with Cosima von Bonin’s Yang (Nr. 38) and Ying (Nr.37) of 2002. Their hard cement presence, together with suggestions of red wounds on the surface of the architecture, contrasts with the soft sculptures and organic forms of the mushroom shapes in the work. Pastel colours add to the contrast, as do the gingham check reminiscent of picnics and alfresco dining on patios in the summer. There is a playful element here, which is starkly at odds with the nature of the building. Also: the feminine has entered the starkly masculine interior. Once again, the viewer has a sense of boundaries breached, in this case not by natural logs or views to outer space, but by an insistence on the feminine taken to monumental proportions as the two sculptural elements are double the size of an average viewer, who has to look up at them. In doing so, the vertical viewer becomes a third element in the composition, a living, breathing person within the bunker with its memories of death and a violent past.

The softness of the sculptures and the very presence of humans in the building add their own registers to the revitalisation of the bunker, especially as they also contrast with the stark nature of many of the minimalist sculptures included on exhibition. Early on in the history of the genre, Max Kozloff acknowledged in “The Poetics of Soft Sculpture” that such sculpture “would invite a language of anthropomorphism, of bodily projection and empathy.”16

The next combination of architecture and a contemporary artwork engages with a staircase and its landing inside the Boros Bunker Berlin. Alicja Kwade’s Broom, Broom of 2012 also brings a playful note to the revitalisation of the building. The broom handles are bent into dysfunctional shapes. In losing their function, the two objects become organic and together they gain associations with moving bodies. One thinks of cleaners working in the building at night and of many contemporary artists who have foregrounded the hidden labour necessary to maintain museum and gallery spaces. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work is an example. Her output has been called “serviceoriented” or “maintenance art,”17 as in where she washed the steps of a museum to draw attention to the unseen contributions of workers to high culture. Kwade activates the stairwell in a manner somewhat akin to Laderman Ukeles’s intervention. The salient difference lies in the absence of real bodies: we imagine them in the Boros Bunker, just as we imagine those other long-ago bodies who hid in fear or those who left behind casual graffiti during the heyday of insalubrious activities in the space. Kwade’s brooms create a frame through which one can focus on the architecture and its memories. In this way a contemporary artwork can be said to ‘curate’ – in the sense of ‘organising’ – the viewer’s experience of the building.

Conversely, parts of the architecture in the Bunker are themselves involved in ‘curating’ the art collection (from which groups of work are exhibited over periods of time). A good example is where being squeezed within the confines of a room immensely heightens the energy of a bulging rubber sculpture by Michael Sailstorfer. (see Figure 10). Elsewhere, two small portraits by Wolfgang Tillmans are hung on a wall near a concrete structure in the corner of the room (see Figure 7). As in other parts of the building, the viewer is momentarily confused about the line between contemporary artworks and extant parts of the building furniture (also see Figures 8 and 9).

The artist duo Awst and Walther engage with the architecture of Boros Bunker Berlin through perforating walls and deploying elements that seemingly move from one space to another. In Line of Fire (2012) they mimic the spyholes and ventilation holes visible from the inside and the outside of the building (see Figure 11). The circular opening on a wall is one element of the work, and the bronze arrow seemingly fired through it onto the opposite wall is the second element. Added to these minimal effects, however, are the visitors in the room. One experiences an uncanny sense of being targeted, of imminent danger, as if another arrow might follow at any moment. There is also an intense curiosity about the room from which the arrow seems to have been launched: who is there, who shot the arrow, is there another one going to be shot? One can hear others laughing and talking, moving about in adjacent spaces due to the spyholes and ventilation shafts in walls.

In another work by the artists, duo pipes are inserted in walls and also act as sound conduits between rooms. The experience is one of being part of a giant breathing and moving organism. Clearly, the sculptural elements, the movements of viewers, and the architecture are inseparable here, especially so in this particular work: the sculpture could not exist without the architecture, and the sculpture and the viewers activate the architecture. Within this “art-architecture complex”18 the ‘dangerous’ history of the building still reverberates as a palpable ‘presence.’ Hal Foster published The Art-Architecture Complex in 2011 to focus on the contemporary closeness between architecture and art. This brings to mind Rosalind Krauss’s seminal article published in 1979 entitled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,”19 wherein she tried to come to terms with the way that minimalist sculpture was starting to undermine the modernist divorce between art and architecture. Using a contemporary vocabulary, artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Mary Miss were active in the 1970s in reinstating the classical and medieval relationality between art and architecture in a new idiom. Boros Bunker Berlin benefits from this legacy: architecture and art are juxtaposed in ways which re-inscribe the functions of both. Well-known art and architecture historians and critics have baulked at this. Voices of dissent include those of Michael Fried and Julian Rose. Fried asks what kind of sculpture needs the help of a room to be noticed?20

Conversely, in Retracing the Expanded Field:

Encounters between Art and Architecture, Rose writes that there is today “a risk that architecture could be the end of sculpture, not just framing it, but swallowing it completely… it is disturbing to imagine an outdoor sculpture indistinguishable from its backdrop and that it could disappear without its architectural frame.”21

Elizabeth Grosz is also emphatic where she argues that architecture should merely frame territory for the other arts to inhabit.22

In contrast, architectural theorist Sylvia Lavin argues in Kissing Architecture for a contemporary, post-medium convergence of art and architecture. She uses the act of kissing as an analogy:

In the seventeenth century Martin von Kempe wrote more than a thousand pages on kissing. But even von Kempe could never have imagined that kissing would serve as a theory of architecture. The kiss offers to architecture, a field that in its traditional forms has been committed to permanence and mastery, not merely the obvious allure of sensuality but also a set of qualities that architecture has long resisted: ephemerality and consilience … a kiss is the coming together of two similar but not identical surfaces … Kissing confounds the division between two bodies [or two mediums], temporarily creating new definitions of threshold ….23

Near the ceiling of the Bunker’s top floor, Thomas Zipp’s Soul without Body (2004) consists of a large bell that visitors can ring by pulling on a rope. The sound is unexpected and it reverberates throughout the whole building, with after-echoes experienced for quite a while. As the sound bounces off the walls, one’s experience in the building is profoundly altered: the sound is a palpable presence; it binds the whole building together; all visitors hear it at the same time. There is something playful but also truly ominous about this sound. Melanie Baumgärtner likens it to “a warning that penetrates to the core” – reminiscent of bomb warnings – while also acknowledging that it brings a note of “anarchic mischief “ to the space.24

Spaces for the exhibition of artworks in the last hundred years range from the modernist white cube – used and lampooned by Anthony Gormley at the White Cube Gallery in London in recent times – to the more recent black box for projection or installation purposes – examples being William Kentridge’s Black Box (2008) and Miroslaw Balka’s How it is (2009) – to what Hal Foster has called a “grey” alternative, a space for performance, immersive installation or social encounters within the context of contemporary art.25 Pierre Huyghe utilises this alternative for immersive installations, such as in his Weather Score (2002); and Marina Abramovic’s performance encounters – such as The Artist is Present (2013) – played out in a grey chamber. Architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfrew’s grey, foggy Blur building on a lake in Switzerland literally blurs the distinctions between architecture and art, as does Olafur Eliasson’s sculptural installation Seeing Yourself Seeing (2004). What happens in Boros Bunker Berlin with regard to the typology of exhibition spaces that have emerged? In the bunker, some spaces have been repurposed to function as white cubes. Even so, these spaces are altered through a spyhole (see Figure 11) or through the remains of erstwhile fixtures (see Figures 7-9). The black box alternative also features, as in Alicia Kwade’s Effective Communication (2010), with light and sound in a dark space. Foster’s “grey” chamber is deployed in spaces where cement walls and floors feature conspicuously. But, they are scarred and battered: inscribed with traumatic prepossession.

Returning to my initial aesthetic experience of Boros Bunker Berlin as a “sensuous particularity of experience in the here-and-now,” I remember another encounter with the art-architecture complex in Berlin at that time, namely when visiting the newly redesigned and refurbished Reichstag. Foster differentiates between art-architecture complexes that elicit an affective, embodied experience in the here-and-now and those that are merely spectacular in order “to serve an ‘experience economy’.”26 Many people visit the new Reichstag. It now has a huge glass dome of massive architectural proportions; viewers can see the city spread out below them and are impressed with the show of economic strength engendered by the scale, bold construction, and impressive views.

One is reminded of Guy Debord’s seminal book The Society of the Spectacle: “In the Spectacle – the visual reflection of the ruling economic order – goals are nothing, development is everything … [endlessly basking in its own glory] the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.”27 The new Reichstag is an example of the spectacle in architectural manifestation. Katarzyna Jagodzinska concurs where she contrasts “fabulous architectural structures with iconic status” by so-called “starchitects” – Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava – with alternative spaces being sought by contemporary artists.28

In contrast to spaces of the spectacle, Boros Bunker Berlin – despite its own economic-capitalist associations – partly escapes the spectacle through veering into critical territory: the uncomfortable, the traumatic, the melancholic, an acceptance of a tainted history, and a mobilising revitalisation through unexpected juxtapositions between architectural features and contemporary artworks. One visits the Reichstag once as so many tourists do. Boros Bunker Berlin, however, elicits a complex affective – and often contradictory – aesthetic experience of prepossession, an experience that remains elusive and cannot be reduced to the spectacle. Permission to use images kindly granted by the Boros Collection in Berlin.


Professor Leoni Schmidt is the Director Research and Postgraduate Studies. Leoni’s doctorate, a D Litt et Phil, is from the University of Johannesburg. She also has an MA (Fine Arts) from the University of the Witwatersrand and a BA (Fine Arts) from the University of South Africa, and a Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education from Otago Polytechnic. There are strands to Leoni’s research; contemporary drawing and its political agency, and the interface between trauma architecture and contemporary art.


1 See Prepossession, eds Jill Bennett and Felicity Fenner (Sydney: University of New South Wales, 2005).

2 See Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verso, 2011).

3 Boros Collection/Bunker Berlin, ed. Boros Foundation (Berlin: Distanz, 2013), 29-30.

4 Ibid., 30.

5 Verónica Tello, Counter-memorial Aesthetics: Refugee Histories and the Politics of Contemporary Art (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).

6 Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory: Selected Essays and Reviews (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).

7 José Medina, “Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance: Counter-Memory, Epistemic Friction, and Guerilla Pluralism,” Foucault Studies, 12 (2011), 9-35, at 13.

8 Tello, Counter-memorial Aesthetics, 2.

9 James E Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New York: Yale University Press, 2000), 6.

10 Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 2014, [np].

11 Jill Bennett, Emphatic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Cultural Memory in the Present) (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2005).

12 Jill Bennett, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affect and Art after 9/11 (London: IB Tauris, 2012), 17.

13 Boris Pofalla in Boros Collection/Bunker Berlin, 102.

14 Saskia Trebing in ibid., 40.

15 Pofalla, Boros Collection/Bunker Berlin, 82.

16 Max Kozloff, “The Poetics of Softness,” in Renderings: Critical Essays on a Century of Modern Art (London: Studio Vista, 1970), 223-35, at 233.

17 Mariya Ipatova, Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition “CARE,” 2014, file/download.php?file=361165&view=53293.

18 Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex.

19 Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, 8 (Spring 1979), 30-44.

20 Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (New York and London: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 159.

21 Julian Rose in Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture, eds Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2014), 56, 58.

22 Elizabeth Grosz, “Chaos, Cosmos, Territory, Architecture,” in Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 13.

23 Sylvia Lavin, Kissing Architecture (New York: Princeton University Press, 2011), 60-61.

24 Melanie Baumgärtner in Boros Collection/Bunker Berlin, 196.

25 Hal Foster, “After the White Cube,” London Review of Books, 19 March 2015, 25-6.

26 Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, 59.

27 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1967), tenets 13 and 14.

28 Katarzynska Jagodzinska, “Bunkers with Art,” Herito, 2 (2011),—2.