Tempering programmatic pragmatism with the nuances of light and colour, this new church in Cologne is a meditative, multivalent space
Church congregations everywhere are falling, so it is rare to build a new church, yet in some places shrinking parishes are combining, as has happened in Cologne’s Protestant suburbs of Stammheim and Flittard. The better of their two postwar churches was in dire need of refurbishment, which would have been almost as expensive as building anew, but by selling the site of their second church, funds could be raised. A new building could also better respond to their changing needs as a parish centre, hosting community events and concerts as well as serving a broad range of worship styles. In 2008 an invited design competition in two stages was initiated, with eight architects participating in the first, and two in the second. Sauerbruch Hutton won, but there followed much discussion with the parish about how to achieve its many aims within the meagre budget.
The site lies just south of a small Protestant village north-east of Cologne, alongside a postwar street, Bonhoefferstrasse, named after the famous Protestant priest martyred by the Nazis. The postwar church flanked the east side of this street, but to its south was an earthen platform raised by about a metre and a half, presumably the result of a spoil deposit. During the 50 years of the church’s existence, a grove of mature trees had grown up on this slight plateau, enclosing an oval green. Some competitors opted to build on it, but valuing its character Sauerbruch Hutton preserved the trees, set their church to north-west, and pushed it away from the street to leave the former church’s site as an open lawn.
To create a presence on the street at a larger scale they added a broad flight of concrete steps and retaining walls with a tall bell tower, the whole ensemble set on the axis of the street opposite. The bell tower’s tapered upward form, clad with the same timber as the new church, has a simple cross incised in its upper part and carries the bells from the earlier church, now operated electrically. After mounting the steps to enter the sacred precinct, you follow a curving path that swings within the ring of trees to the church entrance on the left, then swings back to the right, leading to an old cemetery in the east. The rear end of the precinct is closed by a hedge and a box-like chapel in the same vocabulary as the church and bell tower, which is used for funerals and private prayer. A series of columbaria are to be added along the north-east side.
The green space with its ring of trees becomes a little acropolis, and potentially a site for outdoor services, framed by elements in a common vocabulary but reducing in scale. Dominating its north-west side, the church denies conventional orientation in favour of the local planning grid, but it thereby gains sunlight for its altar (north-west) brought in via a large rooflight. In form it consists essentially of a hall-like central body with lower side wings dedicated to subsidiary functions such as social rooms, kitchen and parish offices, but one crucial planning move changes its whole character. This is the projection and skewing of the main entrance by around 30 degrees, advancing it to greet the path.
The diagonal so contrived is carried up to the gallery above, powerfully inflecting the whole inner space, an effect made all the stronger because the sole window lies over the entrance and terminates the gallery, dominating the view back from altar and pulpit. South-facing, this window receives the midday sun, mediated in summer by shadowy foliage on the milky glass. One further significant irregularity breaks the symmetry: the dais at the altar end. Its steps skew in opposite directions because the folding doors to the side aisles are on different levels: that to the right opening as an extension to the dais, that to the left remaining at the level of the congregation. These accord with expected uses; to the right is a place for a band while to the left is an annexe to accommodate a larger congregation on festive occasions. Although at first they appear symmetrical, the side aisles are not of the same width, that on the south being wider to accommodate the largest parish room, kitchen and lavatories. These rooms open to the garden with glass doors for festive occasions such as weddings and parties, and enjoy a restful view, while to the north side looking out on the columbaria are meeting rooms, office and sacristy: life to the south and death to the north.
Louisa Hutton commented that the old church had been ‘too much like a sports hall’, which tends to be the perennial problem with multi-purpose spaces, but the demand for flexibility has not ceased. Not only can the church host a range of services, but it is also used for concerts and other social occasions that help bring society together. Seating plans show 11 different scenarios including party, concert, wedding and funeral as well as various types and scales of worship. The floor is flat and the chairs movable, folding screens open to either side of the altar, pivoting doors open up the foyer, and the gallery can be used in various ways, but the space is still essentially linear culminating in the altar.
The altar wall therefore provides the climax to the whole spatial sequence, particularly as there is nothing beyond, no east window with its promise of resurrection. During concerts and religious services everyone sits facing it, while sermons and readings, baptisms, blessings and performances, are carried out before it. The old church had a good pipe organ, now recovered, reinstalled and controlled by a movable electronic console. The great array of pipes is conveniently gathered across the altar wall and speaks well, filling the room, but would hardly in itself have offered a suitable visual climax. So the architects interposed a screen in strips of coloured wood, transparent enough acoustically and allowing ghostly glimpses of pipes behind when the light finds the right angle, so the layering is palpable. The contrasting colours give it a vibrant quality like a Pointillist painting, especially when sun falls on it from the rooflight, and it is all the more effective because the remainder of the space is almost devoid of colour, finishes of wood texture lightened in a whitish stain.
Close up the screen consists of coloured sticks with slightly angled sides in colours which in themselves are unimpressive, but together they develop their vibrancy through contrast and they change character with the strength of light. The colour pattern was determined intuitively after much experiment, following a general rule of darker below, lighter above: but it is abstract, remains open to interpretation, and is unburdened by specific symbolism. The religious rituals are more clearly focused by the movable furniture adopted from the previous church: pulpit, altar and font in a simple, 1960s style, well-made in oak. As well as preserving memories for older congregation members, they add a layering of style and period. Sauerbruch Hutton added only a simple floating cross.
The budget was tight, so the architect’s initial intention to build in concrete was abandoned in favour of wood construction, using laminated beams and cross-laminated panels delivered by a Finnish firm. Timber is both cheaper and more sustainable, but for architects interested in expressing the substance of a building it also posed issues about assembly and texture. Cross-laminated timber is an enlarged form of plywood, only possible due to the strength and reliability of modern glues, but it leads away from the tree as a recognisable object as well as allowing sizes impossible with a simple beam. Sauerbruch Hutton understandably wanted to avoid the addition of finishing layers, so the composite construction has been left mostly raw and is readable in several different kinds of surface in the interior. On a concrete base the side aisles were assembled first with composite panels, door and window holes pre-trimmed, notches for beams pre-made. These elements have the cheapest surface of stapled sterling board only treated with a light stain. For the rear parts of the church and the funeral chapel a more expensive kind of panel was used with a plywood grain making a striated surface, sandblasted for a slight roughness then waxed white.
The church’s main structure was assembled after the side aisles, consisting of portal frames using 500 x 75mm beams and 300 x 75mm columns of laminated timber. The closely spaced frames give the church interior a rhythmic character that frames the altar wall as well as recalling the ribs of the nave as ship. The wall panels with striated surface are used mainly horizontally or vertically, but the layers run diagonally in the sides of the gallery stair, which is both structural and fire-protected from the foyer. Instead of mitring the corners the architects have exposed the edge of the outer layer. Everything had to be planned and assembled to a tight tolerance, not a rough job covered by another layer: the doorframes, for example, are articulated by shadow gaps. The exterior is clad with weatherboarding attached at 45 degrees, the boards’ direction alternating between adjacent panels, which gives the facades a sense of order and rhythm, roughly related to the scale of the panels, and the changes of angle enhance the effect by the differing ways they catch the light. In contrast with the grey concrete base and black glazing mullions, the wood is stained dark brown. This muted colour treatment plays against the grass, trees and sky, making the light-coloured interior seem brighter and more welcoming before you experience the polychromatic impact of the altar wall.
Visiting this church was a reminder of how important it is to see buildings in the flesh. Casual glances at photos and websites beforehand had revealed two things as outstanding: the almost aggressively diagonal treatment of the cladding and the multi-coloured altar wall with its vertical stripes. While these details probably help Sauerbruch Hutton as a style and a brand, they are both less and more than they seem. The diagonal cladding, less prominent in reality, turned out to be just traditional weatherboarding put on at 45 degrees, a sensible solution for a wooden building, but as we have seen it is also the first clue in a series of contrasting timber textures which speak about the construction process. The multi-coloured stripes might be dismissed as simply another of Sauerbruch Hutton’s colour experiments, but are very different from those in their other building. Instead they have a profundity lacking in photos, which hardly begin to convey the play of light and the atmosphere they generate in a quest for contemporary communion with the divine.