This essay will explore the relationship between the church of St. Anna in Düren, rebuilt after WWII, and the complex ideology of its architect who strived to realise in this building a faithful incarnation of his progressive theories.
Known as one of the most prolific and outspoken ecclesiastical architects of the 20th century, Rudolf Schwarz was born in Strasbourg in 1897 in a devout Catholic family of German origins. He became after 1920s a member of a radical group of the Catholic Youth Movement called the “Quickborn”1 (life-source in Old German) which was influenced by the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Liturgical Movement, Romano Guardini. The key ideas promoted by the movement were related to a new spatial design for celebrating the Mass, with the main debate revolving around the concept of Christocentric plan. Throughout his career Schwarz would give architectural form to Guardini’s theology, advocating a new ideological start brought about not only by the change of technical possibilities but also by a reinterpretation of the liturgical sacrifice. His attempts to find an architecture of contemporary spiritual significance came at a time when the Catholic Church herself looked for new ways of maintaining her influence.
Eight years after completing his highly influential Corpus Christi in Aachen, Schwarz published “Vom Bau der Kirche” (translated into English as “The Church Incarnate – The sacred Function of Christian Architecture”), a seminal book where he develops seven archetypes representing idealised plans of sacred places. The archetypes are concise images incorporating historical development and religious progression while showing a sensibility towards the mystery of the liturgy in its multiple dimensions. Here Schwarz presents the church building both as an instrument for worship and an embodiment of a profound reality. The book also tries to reconcile two conflicting concepts which divided theologians since the rise of the Liturgical Movement: the topological centrality of the altar favoured by Guardini’s followers and the theological centrality which was the traditional Tridentine perspective. As we will see, the entire argument is carried out in physical form in the plan of the church of St. Anna.
Situated almost halfway between Cologne and Achen, the city of Düren has had a long and tumultuous history, having been forced to rebuild itself twice. In 1501 a relic of St. Anna was brought to the local church of St. Martin which transformed the city into an important pilgrimage site as well as a major place of commerce. On 16th Nov 1944 however, 97 percent of the city was destroyed in an air strike by the Allies in WWII and the Gothic church, by then dedicated to St. Anna, was almost completely levelled. Due to its strategically vital location by the river Ruhr, Düren was in 1945 the site of bitter fighting but in 1950 an active process of reconstruction began.
Schwarz’s career was divided by the outbreak of the WWII which marked for him a turn towards a symbolism more subtle and philosophical than before. Throughout his work he attempted to integrate theory with practice but some of his religious buildings could suggest that his conception of archetype and spiritual essence is at odds with its built translation into spatial order2. Designed 13 years after “Vom Bau der Kirche” was published, St. Anna in Düren is arguably one of the most clear, albeit at times incongruous, representations of his ideals. Preoccupied with the essential function of the church building, Rudolf Schwarz developed here an architecture out of theological, liturgical and practical innovations, “informed by a genuinely modern understanding of the ecclesiae and its liturgy”3.
The three-aisled Gothic basilica with parts dating from the 13th century, destroyed in WWII and Rudolf Schwartz’s St. Anna church reconstructed from the rubble of its predecessor
Built between 1951 and 1956, Schwarz’s competition winning design for St. Anna is an intriguing attempt to weave past and present into a fresh reinterpretation of liturgical programme. It stands in the central area of the city, on the same site as its five predecessors and although different in plan, the project preserves the old fabric of the late building by using the rubble found after the bombing. Simplicity, truthfulness to material, quietude and extreme economy of means characterise the exterior of the new building, as if a scar too deep to heal was left by the atrocities of the war. Approached from the distance, the geometrical body of the church blends into the postwar residential housing surrounding it, partly due to the warmth of the tawny earth colours of the sandstone which was originally brought from a local quarry. Thus the building feels well grounded, emanating a firm sense of belonging.
As is the case with many of Rudolf Schwarz’s buildings, the church of St. Anna is, on close inspection, more complex then imagined at first sight. Nested between a public square and an open market, the building shows an austere elevation on two of the main adjacent roads but seems to soften and open up as it faces the public space towards south where its two entrances are located. It is organised in an L shape with the main nave oriented east-west and a smaller one at a right angle. Connecting the two naves is a lower space serving as entrance hall or narthex. The bell tower, although built a few years after the church’s completion, is carefully constructed in the same style, with the elegant addition of limestone horizontal banding alleviating the severity of the plain walls. This 50m tall structure is the sole architectural sign announcing the building into the distance.
The entrance to the church is preceded by a small public space, designed with groups of pilgrims in mind. Passing through Annaplatz, visitors are offered two options for entering the church. The main way in is marked by the bell tower and leads one into a low semi-obscure hall. Created seemingly for special occasions and feast days as additional seating or standing area when larger congregations and pilgrim groups gather at the shrine, the true purpose of this skewed space with confessionals along one side appears at first slightly ambiguous and undecided. Here light is intentionally subdued and penetrates the space through small oculi cut into the ceiling. It could remind one of the primeval darkness and of the sinful condition of humanity, metaphor which is highlighted by the sudden abundance of light experienced in the main nave.
View coming from the main entrance into the narthex and nave
In the bright, lofty space of the nave the visitor starts to become aware of the journey of which Schwarz writes in his book when analysing the fourth plan or archetype: “In the gateway the pilgrim experiences end, faltering, darkness, the uncertainty of transition, and then the joy of coming out into the new space which opens wide before him”4. This interesting play of contrasts appears more intriguing as one enters the space since the source of light is initially concealed from view. Gradually however it becomes clear that the light is filtered down and diffused by the expansive areas of glass behind. The darkness/ light duality is transformed into a solid/ open dialogue in the nave between the weight and mass of an unbroken wall on one side and the clean rigidity of steel columns framing wide bays of glass blocks on the other. This vast and luminous space lacks ornamentation, as part of the architect’s attempt to avoid physical distractions while focusing the faithful’s attention towards the sanctuary lying at the intersection between the two naves.
The separation between nave and presbytery is minimised at St. Anna, with the choir moved at the back of the church and the communion rail designed in such a way as to reduce any visual barrier. These aspects prove Schwarz’s preoccupation with overthrowing the hierarchical model of the Church in favour of an egalitarian approach advocating a universal liturgical space. Blurring the boundaries between clergy and laity, he thus anticipated some of the resolutions of the Second Vatican Council a few years later. The chancel is raised on three steps with the pulpit and priests’ chairs while the altar is further raised on other three steps.
*** To be continued in the next post ***
1. Hans Ansgar Reinhold, ‘The architecture of Rudolf Schwarz’, Architectural Forum, 70 (1939), 22.
2. Florian Urban, ‘Rudolf Schwarz and the speech of the land: grammar as a political device in postwar Germany’, Journal of Architecture, 9, 3 (2004), 251-266.
3. Peter Hammond, Liturgy and architecture (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1960), p. 57.
4. Rudolf Schwarz, The church incarnate: the sacred function of Christian architecture, trans. Cynthia Harris (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1958), p. 140.