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‘Abstract forms were espoused more quickly by the German church than by industries’

Mariendom Nevige3

In the wake of the Second World War, radical new places for repentance, forgiveness and renewal emerged in West Germany

Measured in terms of ambition, excellence and influence, the many churches erected in the Federal Republic of Germany between 1948 and 1968 and used by most of the country’s citizenry, rank high among the achievements of 20th-century architecture, although they are often overlooked by those who would like modern architecture to be about something else altogether.

West Germans in the first years after the Second World War did not quickly revert to Bauhaus-style architecture. To the degree this happened at all, it began only in the late 1950s. Instead they built churches.

Few were adventurous, although limited resources in the first postwar years ensured that most were understated in a way that indicated a basic sympathy for the reforms advocated by the German Werkbund since the early 20th century (Theodor Heuss, the republic’s first president, had been the organisation’s managing director from 1918 to 1933). Several, however, including most notably Rudolf Schwarz’s St Anna in Düren, consecrated in 1956, and Gottfried Böhm’s Mariendom, completed a dozen years later, are outstanding examples of the intersection of innovative design with enduring purpose.

altar of Gottfried Bohms Mariendom in Neviges

altar of Gottfried Bohms Mariendom in Neviges

Source: Yuri Palmin

The altar of Gottfried Böhm’s Mariendom in Neviges demonstrates the desire to bring the clergy and congregation closer together

Both were erected in the archdiocese of Cologne, where Josef Cardinal Frings, archbishop from 1942 to 1969, presided over the construction of hundreds of new churches, almost all in an emphatically modern style. Schwarz, like Böhm’s father Dominikus, had already achieved a measure of fame in the last years of the Weimar Republic. His Corpus Christi in Aachen, like Dominikus Böhm’s St Engelbert in the Cologne suburb of Riehl, from whose pulpit Frings preached until his cathedral was repaired, was widely published internationally after the war, including by English-speaking Protestants.

‘West Germans in the first years after the Second World War did not quickly revert to Bauhaus-style architecture’

Frings’ predecessors had been hesitant about the Liturgical Movement and the architecture associated with it, but the cardinal, who would play a key role in the Second Vatican Council, embraced the idea that the shared celebration of Mass, rather than private devotion to the saints, should dominate Christian worship, and that the altar should be a free-standing table, with no choir separating it from the congregation. He was also an astute politician, securing the promise of ample church taxes from the Christian Democratic Party, which he helped to establish, before leaving secular affairs to Konrad Adenauer, Cologne’s former mayor and the republic’s first chancellor.

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz5

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz5

Source: Anna & Eugeni Bach

The stones of the previous church were resused in the construction of the Church of St Anna, Düren

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz2

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz2

Source: Anna & Eugeni Bach

Church of St Anna, Düren, by Rudolph Schwarz

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz4

Church of St Anna Duren by Rudolf Schwarz4

Source: Anna & Eugeni Bach

Church of St Anna, Düren, by Rudolph Schwarz

Many of the finest postwar West German churches paired Expressionism with surviving fragments – most often steeples – of neo-medieval churches erected during Germany’s Second Empire (1871-1918), but St Anna was mostly new and the Mariendom entirely so. The immediate postwar period is often described as being devoid of memory, but both made clear references to history. Schwarz reused the stones of the earlier church, which had been destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, and Böhm clearly quoted medieval as well as Expressionist sources.

St Anna stands at the centre of the small city of Düren, near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. Schwarz claimed that the L-shaped structure was, in its day, the largest stone building under construction in Europe; the imposing masonry is broken only by the perforations over the altar that symbolise the Tree of Life, and the large areas of clerestory glazing tucked inside the angle of the L. He designed a low aisle to the right of the main nave to accommodate the relic of St Anna, to whom the building is dedicated, and the pilgrims it attracts. As it reaches the altar end of this building, this aisle flares out slightly to meet the single transept. Schwarz carefully conceived the church to give maximum visual access to the altar, which sits on a stepped podium and can be approached from all four sides.

‘Many of the finest postwar West German churches paired Expressionism with surviving fragments of neo-medieval churches erected during Germany’s Second Empire (1871-1918)’

Schwarz himself characteristically emphasised the theological dimension of his plan over its stylistic execution. He described the form of the building as being like the open coat of St Anna. Standing for maternal love and eternal goodness this coat, ‘brightest at the altar where the light comes from two sides’, was ‘to wrap people in its embrace and take them to heart’. Note that Schwarz crafted it out of immaterial light rather than the solid stone with which he defined the outer edges of the building. Nonetheless for parishioners, that the walls of the new church shared the same colour and texture as those of its predecessor, even as they were reconfigured into new forms that paradoxically appeared more archaic and thus more permanent, was undoubtedly immensely reassuring. Because the relic, too, had miraculously endured, one could now add personal as well as communal prayers for forgiveness and redemption to the pleas for intercession that had long been made here.

The simultaneous recollection of Weimar Expressionism and the Gothic precedents upon which Schwarz drew did not require the presence of neo-medieval or actual medieval remains, as the cathedral-scaled Mariendom clearly demonstrated. Cardinal Frings initiated the project. By 1963, when he won the competition to design it, Gottfried Böhm had become, with Hans Scharoun, the most important postwar keeper of the German Expressionist flame. For Böhm, unlike Scharoun, the abstract recollection of a medieval past was often as important as the creation of apparently eccentric forms that were, in fact, carefully conceived to promote social gathering. No doubt inspired as well by Le Corbusier, whom he noted was ‘more impulsive, fizzy, and more uncontrollable but also because of that perhaps, he had a more human feeling’, than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius, Böhm began in the early 1960s to embrace an angular, sculptural style.

Mariendom nevige 1

Mariendom nevige 1

Source: Mark Wohlrab

The distinctive concrete structure of the Mariendom looms over the town of Neviges

Mariendom

Mariendom

Source: Mark Wohlrab

The distinctive concrete structure of the Mariendom looms over the town of Neviges

Mariendom Nevige

Mariendom Nevige

Mariendom, Neviges floor plan

The Mariendom represented the culmination of the reforms in Catholic architecture instigated at the beginning of the Weimar Republic and enshrined following the Second Vatican Council. For Schwarz, the focus on creating an appropriate space for the communal celebration of Mass resulted in an otherwise reductive architecture in which the material intruded as little as possible upon the domain of the spiritual. Böhm, however, believed that modern sacred architecture should appeal more overtly to the emotions. For him this encompassed the recall of Bruno Taut’s city crowns, which he re-sanctified, not least by alluding abstractly to the medieval precedent. The result was one of the most imposing buildings ever erected in the Federal Republic. Its relatively remote location in a village on the edge of the border between the Rhineland and the Ruhr regions, as well as on what were then the margins of modern architecture meant, however, that the scope of his achievement received relatively little attention.

The Mariendom was built to rehouse a 17th-century print of the Immaculate Conception. At Neviges, Böhm was charged with the creation of an ensemble that extended well beyond the church itself, whose roof flamed over the approach to the building, to encompass a convent, a kindergarten, a retirement home and a hostel for pilgrims. Instead of being constructed out of glass, the church’s multi-faceted peak is a forceful concrete presence looming over the road and rail approaches and the pilgrimage path. The monumentality of so many institutional buildings of the 1960s is here reconfigured with an unusually subtle sense of scale as well as attentiveness to the way space is bounded. This begins with the processional route to the doorway. Framed on one side by a wall and on the other by the gentle undulations of buildings housing offices below and a convent above, a series of stacked terraces evokes the favourite urban precedent of the period – Italian hill towns – far more effectively than most schemes of the day precisely because they maintain the same scale, even while ransposing the original brick and stone into concrete.

Neviges 3 jpg

Neviges 3 jpg

No precedent prepares one for the experience of the interior, which is one of the most striking of any 20th-century church. The freestanding altar, designed to allow the celebrant to face the congregation, is not quite on axis with the entrance. To the left of the large, relatively dark sanctuary cluster the chapels of pilgrimage where the image and the Blessed Sacrament are housed. To the right and above the entrance rise three tiers of balconies, ensuring that none of the thousands of pilgrims is too far from the altar or has a poor view of it. The angular forms of the roof – into which small windows are set – tower dimly above. Böhm pragmatically used streetlamps to illuminate its cave-like dimness. The entirely irregular and not always clearly perceivable boundaries of the interior help create a mystical atmosphere.

‘The Mariendom was built to rehouse a 17th-century print of the Immaculate Conception’

Many of the ways in which Böhm organised this space would have been inconceivable before the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, where his patron had played a key role. First was the sense of spatial unity between the congregation and the now freestanding and only slightly elevated altar. These were no longer separated by an altar rail and the celebrant now faced the congregation. Stained glass and sculpture contribute to the success of the interior, providing welcome detail and warmth. The windows, which feature the Marian theme of the rose, are of Böhm’s own design. The most striking, with rich reds that dapple the walls, are in the two main chapels. There is a hint of the Art Nouveau work of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh about these stylised flowers.

Dominikus Bohms Church of St Engelbert in Cologne

Dominikus Bohms Church of St Engelbert in Cologne

Source: Raimond Spekking / Wikimedia

Dominikus Böhm’s Church of St Engelbert in Cologne

Böhm’s purpose was strictly religious; the Mariendom has not at any point in its history been understood to stand in any way for the increasingly secular Federal Republic. And yet this church indicated the commitment to the same participatory public that was also fundamental to the consolidation of German democracy. Its architect, who described its interior as a ‘sacred marketplace’, created an unusually anti-hierarchical public space in which even the altar – which stands atop a relatively low three-tiered platform – is set amid rather than beyond the congregation. Moreover, in keeping with the trend at the time to conceive of the church as a multi-functional community space, Böhm envisioned it as a place that would in his own words, in addition to Mass, house ‘communal prayer and song, as well as musical festivals, also dance or play, lectures and discussions, films and slide shows’.

 ‘The church portrayed itself as both reassuringly permanent and impressively up-to-date’

It is one of the great paradoxes of the history of modern architecture that new building materials and abstract forms were espoused more quickly by the German church, already in the Weimar and especially in the Federal Republic, than by many of the industries and institutions whose modernisation sparked demands for an architecture in the spirit of the times. Modernism was particularly useful for communicating the way both Catholic and Protestant congregations were reforming themselves, not least by promoting a sense of community that transcended class divisions. Through the construction of inexpensive but impressive buildings, many located in new working-class suburbs, the church portrayed itself as both reassuringly permanent and impressively up-to-date.

And yet, these buildings were in no way old-fashioned, much less historicist, as no less than Mies recognised when in 1958 he wrote a generous introduction to the English translation of Schwarz’s The Church Incarnate. Even as these buildings documented the destruction of the war, they also provided places for repentance, forgiveness and renewal. Not least, they contributed in important ways to creating the conviction that stable communities could be recreated and form the basis of a viable society. They accomplished this in many cases long before the outlines of the economic miracle and the success of the Federal Republic’s integration into the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union, became clear. Even as many of the buildings themselves are threatened with demolition now that fewer Germans pay their church taxes, and finding new uses for them has become a major challenge for preservationists, this remains a remarkable achievement.

the altar of the Church of St Albert  Saarbrucken

the altar of the Church of St Albert Saarbrucken

Source: Atreyu / Wikimedia

The altar of the church of St Albert, Saarbrücken