In which rooms do we find spiritual home?
The institution of the church – judging by the falling number of members – appears to be losing more and more importance socially. However, as a place in a town or city – as a building and as a room – it has always maintained its status. And if you look at the multitude of new ecclesiastical buildings and their extraordinary creative qualities, then you recognise that these rooms still convey a feeling of home to people – whether they are religious or not.
The European history of architecture has long been characterised by the history of the sacred building – from the temples and altars in Greece and Asia Minor, to the Roman ancient world, the development of the early Christian basilicas, right through to the masterpieces of the Gothic period, Renaissance and Baroque. At the same time, the cathedral is far more than just a gathering room and home of a community. It is also the symbol for the power of its architects and a landmark of the city – and has remained so until today. Up to now, churches with their towers still determine the silhouette of most European cities. Churches continue to characterise a city’s dimensions. They define to a large extent places, squares and regions. They create identity and characterise home in very different ways.
Yearning for home
The Frauenkirche in Dresden is the best example that the church means more than just being home for a community. This church is rather a symbol that represents something like home for a whole city. The famous baroque construction with its dome cross at a height of 93 metres contributed to Dresden’s reputation as »Florence on the Elbe«. But the Frauenkirche only belonged to the silhouette of the old town for around 200 years. After the bombings in February 1945, the ruins and a giant pile of rubble from the burnt-out and caved-in church characterised the image of the city centre for nearly 50 years. And hope of rebuilding the place of worship germinated in the city for just as long. The reconstruction that was decided after the change preceded a controversial discussion on whether it was right, here in particular, to pay tribute nostalgically to the past and to eliminate traces of this impressive memorial. But in the end, the longing for this symbol of home was stronger than the destructive power of the War and also stronger than the resistance against the controversial reproduction of the baroque church of the architect George Bährs. And so the restoration continues emotionally, financed not only by the people of Dresden, but also by many visitors to this city. The official opening of the church building, which is being rebuilt from the ruins, is planned at the latest for the 800th anniversary of the city in 2006.
They found their way home
Another ecclesiastical building was recently completed in Dresden: the Jewish community in Dresden has a home again. In 1938, the synagogue on the Brühlsche terraces, which had been built 100 years earlier by Gottfried Semper, was pillaged and levelled down. The Saarbrücken architects authorised with the rebuilding, Wandel, Hoefer, Lorch and Hirsch, refused to join in the widespread reconstruction mania in Dresden. With their self-confident, contemporary architecture they set a clear example for the self-image of a modern Jewish community. The synagogue and community house stand opposite each other on a raised plateau as autonomous buildings that are nevertheless connected with each other. A slight spiral twist of the stone layers stacked on each other gives the monolithic-like synagogue a subtle dynamism and a concise sculptural expression. In the walled in courtyard between community house and synagogue, the space of the destroyed Semper synagogue filled with broken glass is a reminder of the »Reichskristallnacht« of 9th November 1938.
The chapel of reconciliation in the former strip of wall in Berlin’s Bernauer Strasse also stands in a place with a dramatic history: a neogothic church stood here originally between the Berlin districts Wedding and Mitte – which, since 1961, was the middle of the death strip between West Berlin and the DDR capital. The church was blown up in 1985, i.e. only five years before the wall was opened, by DDR border guards to ensure „safety and order“. With a simple chapel, the young Berlin architects Rudolf Reitermann and Peter Sassenroth have now created an impressive symbol in a place that still seems like desolate no man’s land and clearly shows the wound of the division: a symbol in remembrance of the barbarity of division and the human catastrophes connected with it. They have created a place of concentration behind a screen of wooden slats. The oval-shaped room is enclosed by tamped clay walls. There is no window connecting to the outer room. The only light is that entering through the transoms in the ceiling. The only window in the chapel is in the floor and exposes the view on to the cellar door of the original church of reconciliation, which was walled up with concrete blocks in 1961. This place, which did not offer any home for many years, has now become home to far more people than just to the neighbouring residents. It is home to countless individual destinies and memories.
Home for a day
When Tadao Ando’s Church of the Wind in Japan becomes home for a day for the bridal couple and their guests, they will be leaving there with only good memories. This wedding chapel belongs to the Rokko Oriental Hotel. It is a church without a community, and is meant solely for wedding ceremonies, offering a ceremonial atmosphere for an unparalleled visit. The entrance to the church, which is sheltered from the wind, is characterised significantly by the wind’s movements. The sunlight projects temporary images on the screens of opaque panes of glass, which flank the path. Each wedding guest takes his own picture home with him. This motif of passing images possibly refers to the fact that nothing is more consistent than nature’s moods – a subtile, and at the same time formal warning to those who come here to enter into wedlock. The architect Tadao Ando describes his design idea with the words: »Things like light and wind only have a meaning if they are brought inside a house so that they are isolated from the outside world there. These isolated fragments of light and nature symbolise the whole world of nature.«
The relationship between mankind and nature also influenced the design of the Christus Pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hanover, where the Hamburg architects of Gerkan, Marg und Partner surround a prayer room with a covered walkway designed as a glass cabinet. Very different elements, which represent nature and our civilisation, are stacked up in there. This church room, prefabricated as a steel skeleton construction, was only a temporary home for the visitors to the World Exposition in Hanover. It was subsequently dismantled and rebuilt in the Thuringian Volkenroda, where the modern prayer room now complements the historic building of the monastery complex.
The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban built a very different type of temporary church. He erected a church made of paper, which was as simple as it was impressive, in the Japanese city of Kobe. It was intended to serve as a provisional home to the community, whose place of worship was destroyed in 1995 during the devastating earthquake. However, this house, which was never supposed to become a permanent home, befell the same fate as so many temporary arrangements: many years later it is still standing and has meanwhile become an icon of contemporary architecture.
There is hardly anyone who would be in favour of demolishing a church, even if there is no longer a community. Instead, ideas are developed more and more often how the hallowed halls can be used for other things. A wine merchant’s has found its new home in the underground vaults of Hamburg’s Nikolai church, which was destroyed in the Second World War. In England, church rooms were turned into public libraries. And in New Brandenburg the Marienkirche was converted into a concert hall. This hall church, which was erected in 1298 in the style of the North German redbrick gothic, was severely damaged in the last days of the Second World War. Work was already started in GDR times to reconvert the ruins into a cultural multipurpose hall. But the project, which was started in 1952, was unable to be completed in 38 years, until the end of the GDR. Finally, in 1996 the city held an international competition and subsequently authorised the Finnish architect Pekka Salminen to construct a spacious concert hall in the historic ruins. This will now become a new home for music fans way beyond the borders of New Brandenburg.
Home with a future
The examples introduced here represent different facets of a multi-structured term for home. They show that home is a lot more than just a house or a place. Home is the mental projection in a place. It is invariably characterised by very personal, subjective feelings and memories. In this context, the church brings everything together. Whether it be a mountain chapel, village church or cathedral – one thing is common to all of them: they can also become a symbol for home as a building and as a place. The creative diversity of the new sacred halls is the image of a pluralistic society, and neorealism – coupled with a new sensuality – is at the same time a sign that the church is also recognised as home for reflection, concentration and contemplation. Home for quiet, home for prayer, home for music and for encounter – beyond the general overstimulation and loud moods of our busy world: a unique place with a special, spiritual and inspiring quality, which only ecclesiastical buildings can offer.
Text: Jan R. Krause (architectural agent and free author, Berlin)