Three pointed spires dominate the skyline of Cologne, Germany, from nearly every vantage in the city. The ornate gothic cathedral, built at the heart of the Roman plan’s concentric rings, looms over low-rise buildings and fanning arteries. More than 90 percent of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing raids during World War II, and as a result, the architectural tourist feels an inescapable sobering sensation. Rebuilding an ancient city in the course of a few decades created a varnish of brutal modernity, but scratching Cologne’s surface reveals a vibrant center of art and design.
Martin Kudlek represents Cologne’s next wave of artrepreneur. Choosing between New York, London, Berlin, and Cologne, Kudlek settled on the latter to open the Galerie Martin Kudlek. He specializes in the work of young, upcoming artists with a focus on photography, and as a savvy gallerist keeps regular tabs on the city’s pulse. We walked the streets with him, chatting about the city he calls home.
Tell us how you got started with the gallery.
I studied art and architectural history and then taught, but academic work is just you and the book. Working in a gallery is much more lively. There are more tasks involved and different people—buyers, collectors, and artists—and a lot of life in all of it.
How would you describe the art scene in Cologne?
Cologne used to be, after New York, the second most important art city in the world, but that was 15 years ago, up to the early ’90s. Now a lot of it has been taken over by London, Los Angeles, even Berlin.
Apart from galleries, are there any museums that exhibit design?
There is the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art), built by Rudolf Schwarz from 1951 to 1958. This was the first major museum built after the war—originally for a painting collection; it became a design museum later. It was built when Schwarz was having a big debate with Walter Gropius, who was saying that strict modernism was the only style because it was ethically right. Schwarz argued that people needed to feel at home again. His modernism embraces the people—the museum is built of brick, concrete, and a lot of window spaces with a lot of light from the courtyard. However, the building is very brutal too; he wanted to shield the art from the city. It is built over a medieval church courtyard, which is a very nice space, and you don’t have to pay to get into the café there.
The Hopper Hotel St. Antonius also has a nice courtyard café.
Yes, you can sit there and eat fairly nice things if you’re lucky. I would recommend people stay there. It is built in an old monastery, and the rooms are very clean and reduced. Designers and architects love it and I like it too—it’s my favorite hotel here.
What are other interesting examples of mid-century design?
Well, if the weather is good, I would get on the cable car to the Rheinpark. That is where Bundesgartenschau, the federal garden show, took place in 1957. It still has a few very nice pavilions, one or two of which have been restored. A lot of the rubble that was in Cologne [after the war] was used for sculpting the park. It’s on the east side of the river, not the town center side. From there I would walk down to the Hohenzollernbrücke, a bridge that leads back to the cathedral and has a very nice view.
Is the cathedral worth a visit?
Cologne is defined by the cathedral more or less: You can’t really not go there, but once you have been there for half an hour you have seen it. I would go check out one of the Romanesque churches, of which there are 12 in Cologne. They were all built between the 10th and 13th century; the most important are St. Gereon, St. Apostein, St. Pantaleon, and St. Maria im Kapitol.
What is the relevance of these Romanesque churches is to modern-day Cologne?
To get back to Rudolf Schwarz—the city’s rebuilder, so to speak—after the war, he said that the churches are the backbone of Cologne. From a historical point of view, they are quite pure and are more important than the cathedral, I would guess. Schwarz wanted to form a sacred path to connect all of them, and to get to know the city that way, which is a good idea because they run north to south all around the ring.
Is there anything exciting being built at the moment?
The most spectacular is the Kolumba Diocesan Museum by Peter Zumthor. Also, just now finished is Renzo Piano’s Peek & Cloppenburg department store, which is made of 6,800 single glass slabs, all of different sizes. It is in a shopping area that I don’t really like, but the building has managed to make it much nicer.
Are there any stores worth visiting?
There is a place called Sign of the Times, which specializes in ’50s and ’60s furniture. They buy unknown designers of that time, and it can be extremely interesting. The owner does not like to show trash like some other shops do. He shows good design from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Does a lot of the inventory come from East Germany?
Yes, of course. Much of it is quite clever in its practicality. I guess that was the important thing in the East. In the West it was to play around with things, you did not have to use them. But in the East everything had a purpose. There is also a very special shop called o.k. Versand. They buy objects from China, India, Bulgaria. Very cheap design, often made from recycled cans, that sort of thing.
After a long day of walking around, perhaps you’ll want to try some Kölsch?
Well, it is a beer you can drink and drink and drink—very light. There are many Germans who are mad about it and don’t really drink anything else.
Where would you go to try it?
The hard-core Cologne beer hall that Bill Clinton went to is Malzmühle. They make the best beer and it is not too far from the cathedral. If you are into wines, however, there is a place called Vintage, which I like.
During the furniture fair we always end up at a bar called Six Pack...
That is the second stop after 1 a.m. or so. It is a hole in the wall—open late and lined with refrigerators filled with bottled beer. For some reason it is quite nice and I often end up there.
After a nice day taking in the city, tourists can move on to their next destination, but as a resident, what do you see in Cologne’s future?
I am quite excited about its future because we need to do something to save it. It is a very proud town that has a fantastic history of art and art collectors. But if Cologne is not careful, this status could change because people are moving away. People like myself and my colleagues, we are trying to convey how nice it is here. Cologne is still an important city—there are a lot of things going on here and there are quite a few galleries that have opened up in the last few years. It is not quite the magnetic city it used to be, but hopefully it is getting there again.