In an old industrial building in the middle of Düsseldorf there is the “Painting Den” of the artist Matthias Köster. His large-scale paintings are standing beside the walls and hanging from the ceilings. They show women‘s bodies in provocative poses, hands that grasp at them, erotic plants, lines that form ornaments. All of this, in rich colours, with a lot of red and yellow. We are standing in the middle of the room, above us is a painting reminiscent of a fresco from an Italian Renaissance church. Volker Busse und Köster are old friends and the conversation drifts easily from forms, colours and proportions to the interplay between painting and architecture and to projects they have worked on together that are more than unusual.
Mr Köster, what exactly is that up there? MK:A friend wanted a claustrophobic sky for a piece of architecture, a cosmos of painting like in the Sistine Chapel. So I designed this ceiling fresco. A luminous vault, a sky with openings to the next world. You incorporated lights in the fresco. How did you go about that? MK: I painted scenes on thin aluminium plates, immersed them in an aquarium and played about with perspective. Turned things upside down. Turned things around. Experimented. I set up lamps, immersed branches of forsythia and cherry blossom and rings, dribbled oil paint in. Misty streaks appeared, several picture planes that the light penetrated in layers. I was interested in an architecture and a baroque, perhaps also a surreal idea of painting – in the micro cosmos of an aquarium. Everything began to shine above me. So this luminous vault emerged as a UV print on canvas, where all my experiments were incorporated. How did you come up with the idea? MK: I really like to go to museums and churches and look at frescos in Rome and Florence. Spaces acquire a completely different dimension, quality and presence with the ceiling paintings. A sky is always created by these paintings and it’s about light in the churches. Frescos stretch out like mosaics strung together and tell stories. So the story fills the space and takes on an architectural dimension. VB: In this sense we work on the same topics. As architects we wonder: How do we deal with ceilings? How do we design them? What can we do differently? In one of the rooms in our offices in “Schwanenhöfen” we have installed one of Matthias’ ceiling paintings. A fantastic painting with depth and at the same time it has ornamental features that affect the surface and illuminate the room in a very strange way. What does this painting show? MK: The origin for Volker’s painting, a luminous ellipse, was Federico Fellini’s classic film “La Dolce Vita“. There’s this famous scene where Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni are going to kiss in the Trevi fountain in Rome. The scene just sets the stage for the painting, which in turn tells its own stories. VB: The painting fits perfectly in the room. When I look at it, it makes me think of new ideas: could we design the facades of buildings quite differently, covering them with metal plates printed with pictures or ornaments. In the past this was quite common, stone slabs, figures, ornaments and lettering were used in very interesting ways in facades. MK: Art and architecture: a major theme that has accompanied us through the centuries and eras – permanent tension. For instance, in the facade of the Düsseldorf Art College the names of painters are carved in stone, the name is honoured; at the same time its meaningless ornament. VB: The modern era, unfortunately, put an end to all that. Today there are just plain facades and hardly anything else.
“My wife and I wanted to create a place where we could ideally live and work.”
But for sure, the new house that you, Mr Busse as architect, are designing for and together with Mr Köster is an exception. VB: That’s quite a crazy project. Matthias and his wife, who is also an artist, have drawn the design. My colleagues and I are doing the construction and the technical part and we hold back with our own ideas. Just sometimes we try to tickle even more ideas out of them both – or we have to bring them back down to earth. Where is the house being built? MK: In an area near Düsseldorf. Between industrial sites and a village with a tall church that belongs to Cologne, between a monastery and commercial premises. Officially the plot belongs to Alt-Heerdt. That doesn’t sound like you’re building a terraced house. What’s the idea behind the project? MK: First I wanted to recreate the palace of Falkenlust in Brühl in wood. But that didn’t work because it was too lavish. Then we thought about it again. My wife Kirsten and I had always been thrilled by the castle in the town of Poppi near Florence. Or the villa in Poggio a Caiano, a Medici summer residence. We also recently discovered the Arianna villa near Pompei and time and again we visit the birthplace of the painter Jacobo da Pontormo, a typical Tuscan farmhouse. We drew our inspiration from all of these places. So now two studios and a house are being built around a courtyard. Everything is arranged like in a typical country house. In the middle we might even have a fish farm. Later. VB: It’s reminiscent of a Roman atrium house with a space in the middle open to the skies. MK: I was also inspired by the wonderful order and naturalness of the stables and living quarters of my grandparents’ farmhouse in Hessen. For two years now I’ve constantly been thinking about materials, proportions and forms. As if I were painting a picture. The work has changed. In the end Volker usually tells me that my ideas are quite uneconomical and can’t be done the way I want. VB: Certainly. With painting you’re very free. If you don’t like the painting in the end, you can throw it away and start again from the beginning. But with building you’re faced with real life. You have to acknowledge realities, also costs – and of course the DIN, the German Industry Norms. If you deviate from them the costs will explode. The architect is a realist that brings the artist back down to earth? VB: Absolutely. But we learn a lot from each other too. It’s a continually changing interplay between what’s doable and what emerges as a new idea or utopia. That’s what makes it so interesting. MK: Sometimes mad ideas can also be realised. Like with the stones that we’re laying now. One day Volker called me and said that someone in Westphalia wanted to sell an old barn cheap. VB: Of beautiful old quarry stone. MK: I drove there, had a look at the barn and bought it. The quarry stones, a portal and an arch are just being delivered to our yard. We can build an arch again. Half of it’s already there. We want to have it all finished by the end of the year. VB: It’ll be completely different to anything I’ve ever built as an architect. Quite spectacular, utterly mad. MK: My wife and I wanted to create a place where we could ideally live and work, for the functions and necessities we have as painters: two artists together. For an artist couple. VB: The functions that you would like are quite different to those that normal people want. That’s what makes it so offbeat.
Could you add some ideas to your portfolio and perhaps use them later? Busse: To a portfolio of things as you would never really do them. Matthias Köster goes to a coffee table standing near the ceiling fresco and gets a book about the Italian architect and designer, Carlo Mollino (1905 – 1973). MK: Do you know him (points at the book). Carlo Mollino. One possibility for architecture VB: He’s quite mad. MK: Perhaps. He came from a good family anyway and was an avid pilot. He flew loops, painting lines in the sky which he later re-drew. From the sketches he designed furniture. He drew motors and then constructed cars and the cable car that goes from the Italian side in Breuil to the Theodull pass near the Matterhorn. Recently I was in a ballroom in Turin designed by Mollino. His ideas for a tiled ballroom are so good we’re going to copy them for our new bathroom. And there’s still the question of how to do the floor and ceiling. An existential question. Mr Busse, do today’s architects lack the courage to carry out such unusual ideas? VB: Definitely. Most stuff is mousy grey and very standardised. Right from the start it’s clear how high a ceiling should be, how big a window ledge or a door. Planning phases are short and building is done according to a catalogue. Really a pity, as we deprive ourselves of our possibilities. Just recently an urban planner was in our office and asked why everyone thinks the “Schwanenhöfe“, which we restored, is so great. And? VB: We kept, as far as was possible, all the original materials, forms and proportions from 1898. People love it, because it’s genuine, honest material. It conveys a feeling of calm and naturalness. I wish there was more like it: buildings that offer space for imagination and individuality. Both of them look about the studio. Matthias Köster will give it up when his building in Alt-Heerdt is ready. In a side room there are piles of works from artist friends, many of them presents. He is in two minds. “Really, I want to take everything here with me and at the same time just turn the key, throw it in the Rhine and start anew on the other side.” Then there’s still the grand piano that he definitely wants to take. Playing the piano is out of the question at the moment. “Our project has been going on so long”, says the painter. He’s looking forward to a new start after building the house then moving in.
Matthias Köster was born in 1961 in Detmold. He lives and works in Düsseldorf and Empoli, Italy. His works have been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions including Chile, Shanghai and Moscow. To capture the fleetingness of the moment, he uses a special painting technique: alla prima, (wet on wet), in one stroke he applies oil paint to a surface of aluminium and works with lighting and various motives that overlay each other. In his paintings the borders between fiction and reality become blurred.