In spring 2016—just one year after König Galerie moved into the former Catholic church of St. Agnes—the gallery’s garden was inaugurated. Photographer Anne Schwalbe and author, publisher, and passionate gardener Jakob Augstein made their way to Alexandrinenstraße to take a closer look at what can be found between the trees, hedges and flowers.
Berlin’s courtyards were once cramped, dark, and damp. Sounds echoed around the walls. The sky was visible high above, five floors up; you had to tilt your head right back to see it. On the ground floor there were small cinemas, tailor’s workshops, and factories for bodices, stationery, and shoes. Such courtyards still exist in the city, but not here on Alexandrinenstraße in Kreuzberg. Here, the sprawling tenement blocks with their multiple courtyards were all bombed to smithereens, smashed to rubble by Allied blockbusters. Whatever ammunition the planes had left they would drop here, before turning for home over nearby Mehringplatz. Being perfectly circular, it was easy to identify from the air. Bad luck for Alexandrinenstraße. Nothing was left standing.

After the war, tall apartment blocks were built and trees planted between them. Things were to become more human, lighter, greener. Today, the trees have grown as tall as the buildings. From above, it must look great: rooftops and treetops, gray concrete and green leaves, side by side, intermingling. But down below where the shade from the trees is layered over the shadows cast by the buildings, where the light no longer penetrates and the water drips off the leaves and runs down the plastering, forming dirty rivulets on the compacted ground, it doesn’t look so great. Actually, these spaces are no longer courtyards. It’s just the place behind the buildings. What can you do with that? People don’t do anything with it. The trash cans are kept there and bicycles. Rubbish lies around, junk. People throw old mattresses from the balconies.

But what if you’re an art gallery? And what if you inhabit a brutalist concrete bunker that was once a church? Then you do something improbable with it. You build a garden. We know the garden primarily as a locus amoenus, an agreeable place. In the human imagination, it has always consisted of shades, flowers, grass, and water. Be it in the deserts of the Middle East, the hills of the Peloponnese, or the forests of Britain. Gurgling water, dappled light falling through foliage, soft breeze whispering amongst reeds and grasses.

In the garden, everything is mostly ordered and beautiful. And outside everything is generally ugly and in disorder. The locus amoenus lies amidst the wilderness of the locus terribilis. The garden is a zone of transition, between inside and outside, between culture and nature. This is true of the garden at König Galerie in a surprising way. It lies amid the urban chaos of Kreuzberg and it brings what is inside the gallery (i.e., art) outdoors. In a garden, wildness always lies outside, while what lies within has been tamed. Nature contrasting with culture. But here the wild outside is the city and what it contrasts with is art itself. The garden is usually an in-between place, yet König’s garden is definitely a sculpture garden.

But such a garden in the middle of the city is also more than this: it connects not only nature and culture but also art and the profane. Added to which—and here lies the profanity of art—the sculpture garden of a gallery serves as a show room. Working with planners from the Königliche Gartenakademie, gallerist Lena König found a simple and ingenious solution to this: small enclosures surrounded by hedges offer exhibition niches for a manageable number of sculptures, while also structuring the two forty-meter long sections of the L-shaped garden behind the coarsely plastered facade of the former St. Agnes Church.
A word or two here about sculptures in gardens: There are historical precedents where this worked well. Hadrian’s Villa, for example, and its Canopus strewn with wonderful Amazons, enormous crocodiles, and with their mighty likeness of the gods. Or the Sacred Grove in Bomarzo, the Park of the Monsters, a baroque folly with elephants, turtles, sirens, and other fabulous beasts; slightly off the beaten track, but definitely well worth a visit. Or Gr tas-Park, which is less well-known, but anyone travelling in the south of Lithuania really should make a detour to Druskininkai and take a look at the old Soviet monuments that have been put on show there by a Lithuanian businessman: here a stoic Stalin, there an affable Lenin, and everywhere valiant Red Guards and members of the Young Communist League—nothing exalts the imagination more than socialist realism.Sculptures in gardens can be wonderful, then. But if we’re honest, mostly it goes wrong. Large DIY stores on the edge of town are home to entire colonies of plaster casts whose originals reside in the Louvre. Others are placed at some nearby mini golf course. Michelangelo’s David. Rodin’s The Thinker. Hosts of young girls, plaster breasts bared, embodying spring, summer, fall, or winter. And all manner of garden gnomes, whether classical (with shovel and spade) or ironically eclectic (having sex or with an axe in their back). If you look long enough you can find anything! But you should steer clear. Irony only works within narrow limits: even if you install a sadomasochist gnome as a way of poking fun at people who like regular garden gnomes, finally, you’ve still installed a garden gnome. Which, incidentally, is an image that sums up the calamity that is postmodernism. But if it must be a sculpture, then a real Erwin Wurm is better than a fake Myron. There’s one at König right now, not quite as white as the Myron (but gently pink) and only partly there: half a man in a suit and without a head. But there is also a whole woman, a bronze Bavaria by Alicja Kwade, who is taking a break, her arm hanging down, her laurels held casually in her hand. And a few other pieces by David Zink Yi, Jeppe Hein, and Claudia Comte. Garden gnomes are no match for them.

There is a fountain too, of course, because a garden without water is not a proper garden. Every locus amoenus needs water, somewhere there must always be a bit of gurgling and splashing. This is a real backyard fountain. Tatiana Trouvé has built a low concrete wall
with a bronze mattress draped over it, out of which water flows. Just like the old mattresses that sometimes come flying down from the balconies.

Where plants are concerned, such a courtyard is no easy location. Like people, they need a bit of light and air. In the damp, airless shadows, everything rots and molds away in the semi-darkness. But in König’s courtyard, a deep chasm opens up to the east between the church and the neighboring apartment block, wide enough to let in the morning sun. That’s something. And a little wind whistles round the corners. That’s enough.
Plants are like people: all are essentially beautiful in their own way, but some are pretty vulgar. And if a bed of shrubs is just thrown together, there is hardly any point. Some long-necked tulips teetering on their stalks like a woman wearing heels too high, a few lousy hostas with ragged leaves that even the snails avoid, a bit of sad heather, and loads of firethorn so the children hurt themselves: this is the default shrub bed. Walking around the small garden at the back of Alexandrinenstraße, on the other hand, you know you are looking at the work of people with refined tastes.

The loveliest gardens grow in partial shade. Not many flowering plants thrive in these conditions but there is a whole range of sleepy large-leafed species that glow in every shade of green. All the hostas and ferns, the grasses and bugbanes. And spring-flowering bulbs in the most beautiful shades of purple and blue: Allium with its spray of flowers, the prairie lily Camassia, crocuses, of course, and the grape hyacinth Muscari. The experts from the Gartenakademie also planted Acanthus hungaricus, a fine purple species of bear’s breeches, and Perovskia atriplicifolia “Blue Spire,” a beautiful member of the mint family. And for everlasting fall, no less graceful, Anemone “Honorine Jobert” and Bistorta amplexicaule “Blackfield.” The wonders of botanical names! (For the curious: The horticultural taxonomy usually places the genus, species, and variety in quotation marks.) It is a pleasure to see a grass that bears the name of the Native American chief Shenandoah standing next to another named after a town on the River Weser.

Of course, beautiful things can be enjoyed directly, for their beauty alone. But the knowing eye looks through things, into and behind them, seeing more than the surface reveals. Plants have tales to tell. Even the saddest tulip has remnants of the dignity and remoteness of the Kyrgyz mountain slopes from which it originally came. And even the hydrangea on a cramped shelf at Aldi brings with it something of the mystery of Japan; the island nation was still closed to foreigners when this flower was carefully purloined by a Swedish botanist in the late eighteenth century.
A garden is like a gallery, a museum, a church, a city, in fact, it is like the whole world. The more you know, the more you see.

© Text Jakob Augstein
© Images Anne Schwalbe