Under Ground – 10 years of Kunst im Tunnel

Visitors to Düsseldorf’s Rhine Promenade can easily overlook the exhibition room for contemporary art below their feet, KIT. Its name is derived from the German phrase “Kunst im Tunnel” which translates to “art in a tunnel”. KIT is an exhibition space encompassing some 888 sqm and is located right under Düsseldorf’s Rhine embankment. The embankment stretches along over almost 3 kilometers of the banks of the Rhine and became a major part of Düsseldorf’s Skyline.  The famous picture consisting of the Tonhalle’s dome, St. Lambertus church, the castle tower at the Burgplatz, the state parliament, the city gate and the Gehry buildings was subject to a major change during the 1990s.

In March of 1990 one of Düsseldorf’s biggest and most significant projects for traffic calming and general increase in quality of life was started. An earlier build promenade was cut off from the historic city center by the four-lane Rheinuferstraße. During the 1960s and 1970s traffic on the Rheinuferstraße increased dramatically.  To counter the street’s negative impact, the Rheinufertunnel was build. It replaces the four lane street with a four lane tunnel. In 1995 the up until then undeveloped Rhine Promenade underwent an extensive conversion. Designed by the architects Niklaus Fritschi, Benedikt Stahl and Günter Baum the new Rhine Promenade characterizes the city’s shape.  On sunny days thousands of visitors stroll around the plane trees and along the waved, blue paving, enjoying the far and wide view granted by the river bend.

When looking at the Mannesmann section (Mannesmannufer) of the Rhine Promenade two imposing buildings stand out. Eponymous for this section of the Rhine Promenade the Mannesmann-Haus and the Mannesmann-Hochhaus could not be more different from each other. Built from sandstones the heavy four-story building by architect Peter Behrens contrasts sharply with the slender architecture of the steel-framed Mannesmann-Hochhaus by Egon Eiermann and Paul Schneider Esleben. The ensemble continues to be an architectural symbol for the progression towards modernity and economic power of Düsseldorf and North Rhine-Westphalia.

The years 1990 through 1993 were not only marked by economical but also cultural aspirations. During the construction of the 1,928 m Rheinufertunnel several caverns were built to ensure the structural integrity of the tunnel. Located on the lower levels of the tunnel they were usually filled up with construction waste and closed up. But one of those construction by-products had a direct access to the new embankment. The cavern was left empty and its walls lined with concrete.
Already during the construction of the Rheinufertunnel Niklaus Fritschi and his partners Benedikt Stahl and Günther Baum were convinced, that the left-over space could be seen as an “architect’s dream”. Public interest in the entire project remained high during the construction phase of the Rheinufertunnel. While under construction there was a continuous demand for tours of the tunnel.

Erich Waaser, leading civil engineer of the project, was key in repurposing the left-over space. He suggested to use the tunnel cavern for cultural events such as the presentation of the play “Das Schwein mit der Geige” (“The pig with the violin”) by “Theater Kontra-Punkt” which was performed in the car tunnels that were still closed for traffic at the time. Inspired by that presentation four more productions were performed in the left-over space below the Mannesmannufer. The space became a temporary venue for the development of location specific musical plays.
The terms “Tunneltheater”(tunnel theater) and “Theater im Tunnel”(theater in the tunnel) trace back to the theater’s active time in the tunnels.

Soon after free cultural scene discovered this special space below ground the city’s Kulturamt (Office of Cultural Affairs) became active in the tunnel. The Kulturamt’s deputy director Klaus Lehmann remembers how he and the head of the Fine Arts Department Wolfgang Topel, organized an “off the cuff”-exhibition with visual artists, writers and musicians of the Düsseldorf cultural scene in 1993:

“As I recall among the participating artists were Sohei Hashimoto, Reiner Roemer, Hanns Armborst, Annette Wimmershoff as well as several other artists that were participating in the newly established artist exchange program between Düsseldorf and En Hod/Haifa (i.a. Dan Richter Levin).With regards to the writers I only  remember André-Michael Bolten und Kai Metzger.

The exhibition‘s opening highlight was a concert by cellist Thomas Beckmann and his wife pianist Kayoko Matsushita. Solely for the opening concert a D-size grand piano was rolled through the still closed tunnel into the underground cavern. The grand piano was borrowed from and sponsored by Heinersdorff.

It was a concerted „off the cuff“-action immediately following the Theater Kontra-Punkt by Anette Bieker and Frank Schulz. There were visual artists involved that were participating in the newly established artist exchange programs with Israel (En Hod/Haifa) and Japan (Osaka/Goethe Institute) and their counterparts from Düsseldorf. Bernd Wiesemann organized the participation of the Clara-Schumann music school. The participation of the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus was organized by Wiltrud Niehl. Niklas Stiller and Thomas Hoeps of VS Düsseldorf/Literaturbüro were also involved.

Everything was very spontaneous, as was the concert by Thomas Beckmann and his wife Kayo and the subsequent logistical challenge of moving the giant D-size grand piano through tunnel tube. Sohei Hashimoto used countless folding chairs that were left from the theater performance for his installation. Dan Richter-Levin built his Frame-Sculptures from “repurposed over-ground construction wood”. The very material was used by Anna Löbner for her “Holztäfelchen” (wooden tiles) shortly after. The three- day event became an impulse for other Düsseldorf artists to explore this special space.”

From 1992 to 1996 the tunnel space became a magnet for artists and the Düsseldorf cultural scene. The seemingly undiscovered off-space and working without any institutional framework impressed the artist Anna Löbner, who died in 2009, on her first visit:

“I visited and photographed the left-over space a couple of months before and was fascinated by its unique form and location.”

Traffic noise was still very much audible at the time and inspired her exhibition “Das Meer 700 mal” (The Sea 700 times). Löbner installed exactly 700 11x11 cm wooden tiles on eye level throughout the entire room. The tiles were painted to depict different sea views with the artist’s brushwork oriented at the wood grain. The sculptor Jost Wischnewski discovered the underground space which is located at Rhine kilometer 743.7 and was part of the construction section LOS 2 during a walk. Funded by the Stiftung Kunst und Kultur NRW, Wischnewski collaborated with the artist Jan Verbeek to realize the exhibition “LOS 2” in autumn of 1994. None of the above projects found constant funding. Neither legal nor practical conditions allowed for regular use of the space at the time. Until 1996 the only access to the tunnel site was limited to two provisional sets of stairs set up by the city’s building authority.

All activities and events, be it exhibitions, theater performances or Parties, took place under the heavy restraints of the location and posed a challenge to all protagonists involved. Albeit offering no electricity, no air conditioning or lavatories, the tunnel’s shell form fascinated its visionary explorers and they accepted its constraints.

In April 1996 a momentous accident in Düsseldorf ended all activities in the left-over tunnel space as it had virtually no fire protection systems. In the fire disaster at Düsseldorf Airport 17 people were killed and 88 injured. The lack of fire doors was determined to be the main cause for the disaster. Since the tunnel space did not have fire doors or any other fire protection all activities in the tunnel ceased until 2006.

Ten years after the redesign of the Rhine Promenade the utilization of the tunnel space was discussed again. Being a well-known and often used space for cultural projects during the 1990s and the peak phase of the tunnel construction it almost got forgotten during the beginning of the 2000s. In 1997 Niklaus Fritschi presented a concept for a tunnel theater with a connected theater café. In 2000 Marcel Uecker-Hardung and Clausjürgen Franken planned to develop the underground space into a rentable exhibition space for contemporary art. Uecker-Hardung’s company Metrocreaplan would have been tasked with the marketing of the space. Neither project was implemented, but they created perspectives for a future use of the empty shell form. In November of 2005, the architecture firm Fritschi, Stahl and Baum created a planning concept for the project “KIT – Kunst im Tunnel”. The architects’ idea was to build a counterpart to the nearby Apollo Varieté-Theater with young, contemporary art, as a “counterpart to the commercialized theater business.”

On 19th January 2006 the city’s Committee on Culture agreed to develop the left-over space into an exhibition space. The founding design of KIT – Kunst im Tunnel was as follows:

“In an unusual way this space offers a chance to create an exhibition space for contemporary art in Düsseldorf. It offers a first chance to young graduates of the Kunstakademie to exhibit their work.”

Construction costs were estimated at 3.5 million euros and follow-up costs at 0.5 to 1 million euros. With actual construction costs amounting to 3.4 million euros the project remained under budget. The Kunsthalle Düsseldorf was identified as being able to provide organizationally and artistically fitting support. Dr. Petra Winkelmann (deputy director of the Kulturamt, Düsseldorf) initially assumed the management of KIT temporarily. Right from the start Gertrud Peters assumed the position of curator and Dejan Mujicic assumed the position as technician. The 2007 exhibition Hotel Kerberos marked the beginning of KIT’s regular operation. The first exhibition was a big success. Within in the exhibition’s first ten days 5500 people visited the tunnel space.

The visible entrance of KIT opens up towards the Rhine and represents an important connection between the exhibition space and its direct surroundings. Passing visitors are being attracted by the open design of the KIT Café and invited to relax on the café’s terrace while enjoying the Rhine view.

Leaseholder Achim Spyra operates the KIT Café together with his wife Fadime Spyra and their partner Hey Jin Bitterwolf. The musical concept by Achim Spyra is divers and attracting musicians from all over the world. It is paramount for Spyra and his team to introduce international bands and the extraordinary location as a place of culture and gastronomy to international guests, tourists and locals. One event series at KIT Café is called “KIT Water Music / Rhine features …”, it is a reference to the home waters of the musicians and the Rhine as a life line to Düsseldorf. The musical styles of KIT Café’s program include Underground, Global Pop, Jazz, Soul and many more. Many internationally recognized musicians performed at KIT Café. Among them are Celsp Piña from Mexico, Konono NO 1 from the Congo, MAKU Soundsystem from New York City, Hackney Colliery Band from Great Britain as well as legendary Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids from the USA.

Visitors enter through the café and then descent to the underground exhibition space via elevator or via a long stairway.

While the tunnel space has an overall size of 1280 sqm, only 888 sqm have a ceiling height of at least 2 m. The entrance area’s floor resembles a ramp pitching towards the horizontal ceiling and creates a diffuse first impression for the visitor. It seems not entirely clear where the room ends. Often this is the first impression of KIT’s particular architecture artists and curator get when visiting KIT for the first time. Accordingly this location is often chosen for the presentation of special works. Lisa Dieckwitsch and Anica Kehr incorporated this in their works for the exhibition “TAU. A project of the class of Katharina Grosse”. They filled the ramp with colored Styrofoam balls and a column made from concrete, paper and other materials they found. A colored landscape was created that seemed to amplify the depth of the taper.

The some 41 meter long taper at the entrance area of KIT often challenges the artists exhibited at KIT as the entire unusual architecture has a distinct presence in the space. The artist Valentin Kruse even amplified this impression of narrowness with his installation “Atlas”.

A big and bright window shines down through a trapezoidal chute and lifts a little bit of weight from the narrowness in the entrance area. The window as a natural spotlight allows highlighting individual objects and creating new levels of meaning.

After leaving the entrance area visitors pass the grey reception desk. The slope of the floor pulls the visitors’ view down into the tunnel. A 30 m long and 5 m wide, concrete walled corridor leads to the central exhibition space. The entire eastern concrete wall describes a 140 m long elliptical path parallel to the Rhine. The flat central area is often left to its original form during the conceptual design of exhibitions. In her 2014 exhibition “The tangible border” Pauline M’barek presented a multipart space installation that referenced architecture of KIT in particular.

The northernmost and therefore deepest part of the tunnel is separated from the rest by a large white cube that contains the staircase of the emergency exit. Above ground the emergency exit is located 40 m north of the café pavilion and is the first visible part of the complex. Below ground the sides of the tunnel converge and merge together. There are still traces of a former access door in the eastern concrete wall of the tunnel. Up until the opening of the Rheinufertunnel for motorists larger pieces and instruments were brought in through that door. The white cube creates a separate space that is particularly well suited for the presentation of film and video works. Pablo Lobato’s video installation in 2014’s exhibition “Avante Brasil” was located between the converging concrete walls. The work corresponded outstandingly well with the effect of the spatial impression. The high ceiling is giving the room an almost sacral quality. This was amplified through both the 5 m high walls as well as Lobato’s video installation „Bronze Revirado/Overturned Bronze“. In the video work three young men ring the bells of a church tower in the city of São João del-Rei, Brasil. Their work is hard, repetitive and potentially life threatening. The artist filmed the scene up close furthering the convergence of the exhibition space and the steeple.

Its extraordinary architecture is KIT – Kunst im Tunnel’s reason for existence as an exhibition room. Starting out as a simple static necessity during the construction of the Rheinufertunnel and the Rheinuferpromenade the cultural scene quickly discovered its potential and KIT – Kunst im Tunnel became what it is today: A major center for young, contemporary art in Düsseldorf that made it its mission to inspire locals to embrace art and connect it to everyday life.

KIT Café and KIT’s art education programs are important elements in accomplishing that mission. During the past ten years more than 650 artists worked in and with the underground exhibition space making it the non-commercial exhibition space for contemporary art its architects and the City of Düsseldorf envisioned it to be.

Text: Jana-Catharina Israel
Übersetzung: Ben Rether