by Sourabh GuptaApr 26, 2020
Gottfried Böhm, the German architect, sculptor and 1986 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, who is known to have designed more than a dozen church buildings in complex and brutalist forms across Europe, has turned 100 today.
Böhm, a living legend - a son, grandson, husband and father of three architects, is based out of Cologne, Germany. His career spans across six decades and is marked not just by seemingly imperfect but incredible buildings, but also a philosophy of humanism, inclusivity, and a sense of connection with where one belongs.
To celebrate the centenary of this visionary, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt is hosting BÖHM100: The Concrete Cathedral of Neviges – an exhibition dedicated to one of Böhm’s best and most talked about buildings from a small, and relatively remote community in western Germany. This church dedicated to 'Mary, Queen of Peace‘ is known as ‘Mariendom‘ or the “Cathedral of the Virgin Mary”.
Böhm’s introduction to architecture was natural. His father, Dominikus Böhm, was an architect in Europe famous for designing stunning churches, and with whom young Böhm started practising architecture in 1947. After his demise, the latter took charge of the firm in 1955. Some of his early works included the design of St. Josef Church (1959) from Kierspe, Germany – a project with a traditional bell tower and a conical peak set in a brick-lined courtyard. Over the years, Böhm’s use of simple and straightforward designs in traditional materials transitioned into complex, impregnable geometries in concrete, steel and glass. This transition is evident in projects such as the Bensberg Town Hall (1969) from the German city of Bensberg that bring spiralled stories of thick concrete slabs rising up towards a blocky crown.
The jagged edges and crystalline shapes of his many projects, which include not just churches but townhalls, public housing and office buildings, exude an inextricable and deep human expression. One of Böhm’s signature elements has been the use of stained glass windows that illustate rose motifs and abstract paintings. These elements would punctuate cavernous forms and swathes of cold and rough concrete with light and warmth. “The red colour stands for love...it’s great that there is a colour that makes you warm inside,“ he said in the movie Concrete Love - a film dedicated to the Böhm family by Swiss director, Maurizius Staerkle-Drux.
Here, STIR speaks with curator Miriam Kremser, who has put together the exhibition BÖHM100: The Concrete Cathedral of Neviges, with fellow curator Oliver Elser.
Excerpts from the conversation...
Zohra Khan (ZK): What is at the core of Gottfried Böhm’s works and what makes them relevant even today?
Miriam Kremser (MK): One special quality of Böhm’s work is that he has an idea of urban areas and that he creates his buildings in relation to it. This was also the strength of his competition design for the pilgrimage church in Neviges in 1962-63. While all other 14 participants organised their churches as simple ‘drop-off-sculpture’ into the building site, Böhm went beyond the guidelines, analysed the area, and developed an interesting urban concept that lead the pilgrims from the main street to an ascending pilgrim path that leads as climax to the church with the grace image of Mary in it.
ZK: Why did you choose the pilgrimage church in Neviges as the sole subject for this exhibition?
MK: In 2006, the DAM presented a comprehensive exhibition about Gottfried Böhm’s oeuvre. So, it seemed interesting for us to change the scale and spend more attention to the details by focussing on one of his greatest projects. The pilgrimage church in Neviges is one of those if not the one: when one opens the Pritzker Prize booklet with Böhm, the two first double pages feature this iconic structure. But another aspect is that one can not only look back into the history of the building, but also into the future, as this concrete cathedral is currently being renovated.
ZK: The exhibition showcases archival material illustrating the journey of the church. Could you briefly describe the evolution of this building, since its inception to what it is today?
MK: Since the late 17th century, pilgrims have been coming to Neviges to pray in front of a grace image depicting the Holy Mary. After the two world wars, the number of pilgrims increased considerably so much so that the Franciscan monks who maintained the pilgrimage, decided to build a new church. A competition was organised in 1962 and the first jury was held in 1963. Five architects were invited to revise their designs. Gottfried Böhm was one of them who convinced the jury in the end and won the competition. In 1966, the construction of the church started on site, and in a span of two years the building was inaugurated.
Some years after the completion of the building, the concrete and steel roof showed damage and water started leaking into the interiors. In the 1980s, attempts were made to fix this issue by applying an epoxy resin on the roof surface, which showed no success as constant temperature stresses caused new cracks. Now, the roof is receiving a new makeover through the application of an innovative textile reinforced concrete layer that has been developed at the RWTH Aachen University under the artistic consultation of Peter Böhm, one of Gottfried Böhm's sons.
ZK: You have created an experiential setting to showcase the various architectural features of this church. Could you walk us through this space?
MK: In the exhibition, we wanted a link to the big, powerful dimensions of the church and that is why we have done something that has never existed in the history of the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM). We have given the 5.50-meter high white cube of the auditorium a new look. The interior photographs are all from 1968, by Inge and Arved von der Ropp, and were combined into a collage by graphic artists Rahlwes.Pietz to create an illusionistic view of the room.
When you enter the church, at first it feels like you have entered an immense, dark cave. Then, even on gloomy days, light beams and the church’s unusually glowing colour-tinted windows begin to come to the fore. We are trying to give an impression of the interior of the church by this room installation.
ZK: As one of the curators, what message do you intend to communicate through the medium of this exhibition?
MK: Besides the aim to honour this great architect for his 100th birthday, we tried to not only present one of his main works with its complete history, but to give the visitors the possibility to dive into the details of this great building. Of course, the pilgrimage church in Neviges impresses by being this significant concrete sculpture that it is, but this creation by Gottfried Böhm is so much more. Colour and artful windows, chairs, candle holders have all been designed by him, and even murals on the facade of the pilgrim's house along the pilgrim's path that has green leaves and letterings naming personalities like Edith Stein or Socrates were also applied by himself. The pilgrimage church in Neviges offers itself in both, large and small scale, with so many aspects and we want to encourage the visitors to search for those clues in Böhm's work.
The exhibition BÖHM100: The Concrete Cathedral of Neviges is on view at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt till April 26, 2020.