Pointing its gnarled concrete peaks above the historic German city of Neviges, the Mariendom It is one of the strangest churches of the 20th century. Standing like a mystical, jagged mountain, pierced by small square windows, it is the work of Gottfried Böhm, who died at 101. The venerable architect leaves a legacy of more than 60 churches throughout Germany, as well as other public buildings that exude his unique Expressionist style, informed by his training as a sculptor. In Böhm’s hands, colossal masses of concrete could be folded, chiselled, and carved, as if by powerful tectonic ruptures.
Completed in 1968 and considered his most important work, the Neviges pilgrimage church was the result of a competition, for which Böhm presented a supernatural crystalline model. It was a fragmented group of angular shapes, more meteor than model, like something sent from the planet Krypton.
The Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Josef Frings, who was presiding over the jury, was nearly blind at the time, and is said to have liked the feel of the irregular pattern as he ran his fingers over it, touching the indentations and valleys of this peculiar mineral. mass. Combining allusions to mountain peaks and penitent hoods, it would be unlike any previous church.
Selecting Böhm’s design was a brave move. His was by far the most radical and controversial of the 17 submissions. He chose to ignore the competition guidelines to locate the church near the city’s train station, rather than placing its monumental mountain range on the highest part of the site. In doing so, he created an uphill processional route, causing pilgrims to climb up to reach the entrance of the church at the base of its steep hills. The curved path would be framed by a convent, a kindergarten, a retirement home and a pilgrim’s hostel, forming a mini-hamlet at the foot of the cliff in a series of stacked terraces, raised on round columns.
Once channeled into the vast chasm of the main hall through a low-ceilinged entrance, visitors are transported to another realm. Steep cliff-like walls rise toward a dark domed summit, where tiny cracks in the concrete bring narrow beams of light into a space large enough for 8,000 worshipers, making it the second-largest church north of the Alps.
Rows of balconies emerge from one wall, accessed by narrow spiral staircases, providing spectacular views up to a separate altar, located outside the center of the entrance. It feels like being in an outdoor space, under a large tent, with the exterior brick pavement covering the ground inside, and street lamps used to illuminate the cavernous gloom.
In a true Gesamtkunstwerk, Böhm designed every detail, from the chairs and door handles to the colorful stained glass panels, all infused with the same angular expressionist energy.
Born in Offenbach-am-Main, near Frankfurt, as the youngest of three children of Maria (nee Scheiber) and Dominic Böhm, Gottfried followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both architects. As a child, he used to draw church windows while sitting in his father’s studio, who designed several prominent churches in simple Expressionist and Gothic styles.
Böhm was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1939, and served until wounded in 1942, then studied architecture at the Technical University of Munich. There he graduated in 1946, followed by a year of sculpture studies at the city’s Academy of Arts.
Böhm’s sculpture studio had been an attempt to distance himself from his father, but he soon returned to Cologne to join the family business. His first project there was Madonna in the ruins, a chapel on the site of a bombed-out medieval church, incorporating the building’s few surviving elements into its own distinctive composition, completed in 1949. (It was later swallowed into the Kolumba Art Museum, by Peter Zumthor, in 2007, much Much to Bohm’s Disgust).
In 1950, he joined the team charged with the post-war reconstruction of Cologne, which would provide lasting inspiration for the rest of his career. “Mountains of rubble bloomed wonderfully there,” he said, describing the scenes of a devastated colony in a 2014 documentary. Concrete love, about the Boehm family business. “It was a mountain world. I love it “.
In 1948 Böhm married Elisabeth Haggenmüller, an architect whom he had met when they were students. Her worked closely with him in many projects, especially in urbanizations and interiors of municipal buildings. They sat across from each other in Böhm’s studio in his father’s former home, along with his three architect sons, Stephan, Peter and Paul, who continue the architectural dynasty, running three firms under the family umbrella.
Like his father, Böhm made a name for himself in churches, but he also worked on various administrative buildings, department stores, festival halls, and housing projects, many of which have been overlooked, in the shadow of his monumental Mariendom.
His town hall to Bensberg, completed in 1969, it appears as impregnable as the medieval castle into which it is grafted, taking the form of a brutalist concrete office block topped by a massive spiral watchtower. The Diocesan Museum of PaderbornCompleted in 1975, it is an unapologetic lead-covered ziggurat, which looks as if the building’s lead roof has slid down the façade to envelop the entire museum. The cylindrical circulation towers add a fortified air to this urban jewel box.
Determined to remain an outsider, Böhm was nevertheless awarded in 1986 with the Pritzker Prize, so the jury quote highlighted how he continued to reinvent his approach. Beginning in the 1980s, he traded monolithic masses of concrete and lead for a lighter vocabulary of glass and steel, his brutalist tendencies taking on a more postmodern air.
His 1995 building for the Peek and Cloppenburg clothing store in Berlin sees large glass curtains fluttering between a skeletal frame, while its Ulm Library, completed in 2000, it takes the form of an elegant glass pyramid. The Hans Otto TheaterBuilt in Potsdam in 2006, it pushes its playful tendencies into overdrive – it’s a wild and theatrical confection, standing like a swirling pile of sculpted red plates, like a wobbly pile of crab shells and lobster claws tossed ashore. by Tiefer See.
Böhm continued to work until the end. The 2014 documentary shows how he began each day with a dip in his home’s small pool before heading to the office, where he would keep a patriarchal eye on his children’s efforts, venting off with quick bouts of ping pong in the garden. .
Elisabeth died in 2012. She is survived by four children, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and an older brother, Paul.