St. Fronleichnam church by Rudolf Schwarz Photo: www.moritzbernoully.com via Flickr
Born out of the same functionalist ideals as the church of St. Wenceslas in Prague, St. Fronleichnam in Aachen was built between 1928 and 1930 and is seen to this day as the quintessential work of Modernism in ecclesiastical architecture.
This radical building, both inspirational and controversial, could however not take shape without the background of major shifts in theological thinking. Rudolf Schwarz was a pupil and friend of Fr. Romano Guardini, the main Catholic figure behind the rise and spread of the Liturgical Movement which promoted , amongst other things, the centralised, versus populum model of the Mass. It was Schwarz who throughout his career would give architectural form to Guardini’s ideas.
Commissioned directly by the community of Aachen, the architect believed that sacred buildings must grow not only out of sacred reality, but also out of the reality of our time. Approached from the adjacent street, the ascetic appearance of this starkly plain mass may lead the visitor in thinking that the building could be a factory shed. Formed of a plastered box with a side nave, a campanile and a parish house, the building complex is read as a unified architectural composition of an intriguing white. A shallow saddle roof, rows of square windows and an unassuming entrance give little indication to the unexperienced eye that this might be a House of God.
St. Fronleichnam church, main entrance Photo: www.moritzbernoully.com via Flickr
Once through the main doors, one is only very slightly more aware of the nature of the building. A double height space of a simplified rectangular shape acts as a nave and is flanked by a single storey side aisle. The two spaces are separated by a 4m wide column from which the cubic pulpit is suspended. The altar at the end supporting the silver tabernacle is the sole distinct sign that this is indeed a place of worship.
Following Guardini’s theology, the church attempts to encourage the active participation of the faithful by deliberately removing ‘distracting’ sacred images and statues from the design of the interior. The emptiness of the space is complemented by a naked altar wall which seems to be dedicated to an absent god.
St. Fronleichnam church, nave and side aisle Photo: www.moritzbernoully.com via Flickr
The minimal separation between the nave and the sanctuary embodies the idea of ‘universal liturgical space’ which favours an egalitarian model over the hierarchical one of the Catholic Church. The only clear distinction between nave and sanctuary is made by the seven steps which elevate the altar. This however was blurred even further when a second ‘lower’ altar was introduced in recent years.
The materials and colour scheme throughout the interior carry some symbolic meaning: the floor covered in blue stone represents the earthly existence while the whitewashed walls correspond to the heavenly order. The altar has a base of black marble, and is highlighted by two columns of square windows. The uniform rendering on the walls hides the concrete skeleton filled with pumice breeze block to enhance the purity of the space. Pendant light wires hanging from the ceiling are the only objects which distract from the shear emptiness enveloping the space.
St. Fronleichnam church by Rudolf Schwarz belongs to a Modernism developed from the functional requirements of the changing liturgy, giving shape to ideas of simplification and active participation while transforming the House of God into an empty space, devoid of real meaning and symbology.
St. Fronleichnam church, interior Photo: Konstriktion via Flickr
Stock, W.J. (2006). Europaischer Kirchenbau/ European church architecture 1900-1950: Aufbruch Zur Moderne/ Towards modernity. Munich: Prestel Verlag GmbH & Co KG.