St. John the Baptist by Dominikus Böhm

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St. John the Baptist by Dominikus Böhm       Photo: Mario H. via Flickr

After World War I, Germany’s fragmented economical state coupled with the growing importance of the machine in the industry led to a search for a new model, a utopia to be aspired to which would express the unity of mankind in a single, cohesive outburst of artistic creativity. This was the context in which Expressionist architecture was to develop in the 1920s and 1930s, with particularly notable projects materialised in German sacred architecture.

A towering figure of the Expressionism in Germany was Dominikus Böhm who in 1921 was commissioned to convert and enlarge a Neo-Romanesque church dating from 1860. His design completed in 1927 for St. John the Baptist Catholic church in Neu-Ulm represents a highly expressive sacred building, designed and executed in the style of a vast grotto.

The building is a distinctive landmark in the urban space, facing the street with an imposing West facade divided into three tall lancet arches over the narrow entrance doors. Horizontal courses of hand formed red bricks articulate the walls made predominantly of limestone.

The work was undertaken in two stages. In the first part, the structure forming the narthex and obscuring the actual body of the church was created. In the second stage of the project the triple aisled nave was added, containing entirely the original Neo-Romanesque building of which only the circular shape of the apse was kept. Uniquely, the nave walls are animated by projecting and receding elements forming a zig zag pattern and evoking a complex symbology. One interpretation could compare the church with the body of the great fish from the Book of Jonah where the prophet prayed for thee days and three nights. Likewise, the faithful are called to renounce worldly distractions within the body of the church and enter into complete dialogue with God.

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St. John the Baptist, view from side aisle       Photo: Mario H. via Flickr

Rectangular pillars, angled somewhat parallel to the slanted concrete wall slabs, widen at the top and curve around, forming a reticulated vault with ‘late Gothic’ folds. Although purely decorative, this element greatly adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the internal space marked by the relatively low height of the ceiling. Despite the appearances, the vault is in fact a suspended structure, created using the Rabitz technique with cement mortar cast onto a wire mesh and bent to shape.

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St. John the Baptist, nave and organ loft      Photo: Mario H. via Flickr

The narrow, 200mm wide window slits between the wall slabs increased four times in width after a post-war reconstruction, therefore, in the architect’s opinion, reducing the mystical atmosphere of the side aisles. These sources of light however, as well as those in the roof are almost invisible to the congregation, illuminating the space with a diffuse light. This, combined with the porous surface of the concrete ceiling result in a magical atmosphere of theatrical effects.

The focus however remains on the altar brought as close to the congregation as possible, in accordance with liturgical movement ideals. Raised on a few steps and flooded with light from the apse windows, the altar was substantially modified in recent years. The original character of the church can only be partially experienced today as the building was reconstructed in 1950s after damage produced by war bombing and later refurbished in 1985 when the suspended lamps were introduced along with oddly shaped sculptures hanging from the ceiling.

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St. John the Baptist, main altar      Photo: Mario H. via Flickr

Soon after completion, St. John the Baptist by Dominikus Böhm became a work of reference for architects around the world and a source of inspiration for modern church architecture to this day. A powerfully spiritual exercise in concrete and light, the church is a proud representative of German Gothic Expressionism.

Bibliography

1. Heathcote, E., Moffatt, L. (2007). Contemporary church architecture. Chichester: Wiley-Academy.

2. Stock, W.J. (2006). Europaischer Kirchenbau/ European church architecture 1900-1950: Aufbruch Zur Moderne/ Towards modernity. Munich:  Prestel Verlag GmbH & Co KG.

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