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‘Böhm has come a long way from Neviges but has never lost his wonderful, original humanity’

Bergisch Gladbach

Böhm’s latest work may disappoint after his works of the 60s and 70s, but is displays similar preoccupations

Originally published in AR June 1981, this piece was republished online in April 2016

O. M. Ungers remarks that ‘the German critics say that Bohm is a man of the people. Ungers is a man for the gods. That’s why Böhm usually wins the competitions.’ Born in 1920, Gottfried Böhm-though only seven years older than Ungers-is distinctly of a different generation. His buildings of the ’60s , for instance the Bensberg civic centre and the pilgrimage church at Neviges, were unique , intensely subjective works of art that showed Germany-and Europe-that the Expressionist tradition was still very much alive.

They have all the inventiveness and versatility in space and concrete of Mendelssohn or Poelzig yet are quite triumphantly and originally Bohm. At Bensberg , Böhm showed an insouciant familiarity with the rough Gothic forms of the castle within and around which he was building. His brut modern concrete meets ragged medieval stone with contrast yet sympathy: the new forms are as complex as the old, they are as savage and in detail as revealing of the competence (and otherwise) of the craftsmen. The spiralling stair tower shows that the architect is not afraid to invent with all the freedom of his Gothic forbears yet he is not cowed by them.

Bohm compilation

Bohm compilation

From left to right: Pilgrimage Church, Neviges - one of the really outstanding spatial achievments of the twentieth century. Bensberg civic centre - new meets old without compromise but with great sympathy. Diocesan Museum, Paderborn - Böhm’s metallic buildings have the same insouciance to old buildings as the earlier concrete ones

At Neviges, Böhm was not working within an old building but on the edge of an old country town out of which the processional way to the church grows naturally, leading the pilgrim forward gently but firmly towards his goal. The church which is gradually revealed is more like a geological outcrop than a building: it is as if a vast mass of stone has been detached from the hill behind and occasionally lightly and whimsically shaped by man. Perhaps because of this naturalness, the church does not dominate the town-it simply pops up here and there as a strange but amiable presence.

Inside the church, the strangeness of the exterior is explained. Every fold, every bump and cranny in the concrete carapace is a direct reflection of some spatial effect within. When the history of architecture is written properly the Wallfahrtskirche will surely be recognised as one of the really outstanding spatial achievements of the twentieth century. It is at once comforting and awe-inspiring; simple in essence, with its focus on the altar, yet immensely complicated; spartan yet wonderfully rich in effects of light and shade, texture and mass, colour and neutrality, intimacy and expansiveness.

Bergisch Gladbach exterior

Bergisch Gladbach exterior

Bergisch Gladbach - the new civic centre incorporates the nineteenth-century pub (left)

Bergisch Gladbach floor plans

Bergisch Gladbach floor plans

Bergisch Gladback floor plans

Ungers may build for the gods but Bohm has built for God. The church (finished in 1971) was Bohm’s last major essay in free concrete. He says that the supply of craftsmen was running out and that the whole approach was becoming too costly. So the 70s saw a new phase in Böhm’s architecture, much more obviously industrially derived than the buildings of the ’60s, yet many of Böhm’s preoccupations were continued in the new idiom. The diocesan museum at Panderborn (designed in 1969 and opened 1975) for instance has all his love of complex spaces and indeterminate forms. And it has his insouciant attitude to juxtaposing new with old: a metallic mass in which heavy grey lead-clothed upper storeys hover above an irregular transparent undercroft of glass and steel is all butted hard up against the medieval cathedral.

‘It incorporates and stretches out from a nineteenth-century Baroque building, jolly with white swags surmounting ox-blood render’

The most recently finished development in this sequence of Böhm’s architecture is the civic centre at Bergisch Gladbach near Cologne. The town is one of those, common in the lower Rhineland, which seem to have fallen together anyhow: here a factory, there a few villas, now a small office block, suddenly a housing estate. The Bergischer Lowe centre is intended to draw this bedraggled mass together. Forming one side of a newly pedestrianised square (without which no German town of any consequence can retain its self respect), the building contains a multi-purpose hall that can be used for everything from dances to theatre, a reception suite, a restaurant, a cafe, a gallery, shops, offices and flats. It incorporates and stretches out from a nineteenth-century Baroque building, jolly with white swags surmounting ox-blood render.

Bergisch Gladbach multipurposehall

Bergisch Gladbach multipurposehall

Interior of multi-purpose hall

From the latter, the enamelled panels of the building perhaps take their deep glossy russet. But, as usual with Bohm, everything new is new: there is no attempt to copy. Here and there are reminiscences of the ’60s Böhm -for instance the stair spiralling round the drum of the lift tower which juts out into Marienplatz: has a kind of affinity with the stair tower at Bensberg. But, like the rest of the building, the tower is completely metallic: there could be no more complete contrast than between the glossy smoothness of Bergisch Gladbach and the rough concrete of Bensberg.

The whole of the elevation facing Marienplatz: is broken up into bays protected by projecting metal sunshades rather like the folding canvas blinds that shopkeepers pull out in summer. This breaks down the bulk and gives it an emphasis of repetitive tall narrow verticality reminiscent of the traditional German street-something Bergisch Gladbach conspicuously lacks. Inside, the bays contain intimate sitting areas which give a sense of individual ness to the large spaces confronting the square: foyer, reception hall, meeting rooms and gallery. These can otherwise be rather daunting-for instance, on entering the building one is faced with a bank of staircases which lead up to the foyer and down to the cloakrooms. All the balustrading is in simple tubular steel, which en masse gives a coarse, institutional, cagelike feeling when few people are about.

Bergisch Gladbach stage

Bergisch Gladbach stage

The stage, with Böhm’s safety curtain, seen from the balcony

The multi-purpose hall has some of the studied gawkiness of Böhm’s concrete buildings. The walls are covered in terracotta tiles and all the main openings are emphasised by light bottle-green ceramic rims. The blocky spareness of the hall is carried into the safety curtain which Böhm has designed as a kind of Chiricoesque street-almost symmetrical and eerily empty except for a wandering rose. This kind of chilly, empty formality is echoed in some of the latest designs to come off the drawing boards of the Böhm atelier.

The design for Pragerplatz: Berlin, which won one of the competitions for IBA is presented in a drawing technique almost as austere as that of Ungers and is nearly as formal as the work of the Kriers (indeed Böhm is working with Rob Krier on this project). At this stage, the Berlin project seems a great disappointment after the work of the ’60s and ’70s. Böhm has travelled a very long way indeed from Neviges but he has never, in anything he has built, lost his wonderful, original humanity. We must hope that, by 1984, the built reality in Berlin will show that the old master has not lost his touch.