Monday, 30 August 2010

Blue Monday in Berlin - Colour in the Gedächtniskirche (1957-1963)

A brief post while on a tour of Germany.
I dropped into the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a building I had seen a thousand times from the outside, but never from the inside.

Image copyright Kultur.ARD.de
Now, with my Basil Spence Meeting House project under way I wanted to look at the coloured glass windows, which here also form one of the main design elements in both buildings. There are other similarities: the round shape (well, octagonal in the Berlin church), the religious symbolism, the time-frame and historical and political circumstances under which they were built. Like Spence in Coventry the architect Egon Eiermann integrated some of the ruins of the original building (destroyed in an air raid in 1943) into an unflinchingly modern and minimalist building complex. In 1987 one of the Coventry Crosses of Nails, forged from large medieval nails found in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, was given to the Gedächtniskirche as a symbol peace and reconciliation.

But, about colour. There is little on the outside. In fact, the aged and weathered greyness of the 1960s concrete structure in a busy city centre betrays the beauty within. Unless daylight has gone and the building is lit from within this is an entirely monochrome and unappealing exterior. In contrast, the concrete exterior of Spence's Meeting House has been given an off-white coat of paint and also benefits from water features and old trees surrounding it.

Picture: www.philipp-winterberg.com/galerie/berlin.php
Inside however, Eiermann's church is overwhelming, beautiful and moving, from the overall effect of the blue glass surrounding the visitor to simple and elegant details, such as the circular floor tiles that subtly mirror the coloured glass in lower saturation. The more than 21,000 glass windows in the concrete honeycomb facade are the work of Gabriel Loire from Chartres, whose main inspiration were the stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral. The calm and soothing atmosphere of the main church building stands in stark contrast to the noisy and chaotic city life outside, and I personally give most credit of this instant dose of peace and quiet to the coloured glass, in combination with other architectural features. The dominant colour is blue, and this is blue on a very large scale: not just one window but an entire facade, a honeycomb pattern of blue framing a space that can sit more than 1000 people. There are no other decorative features of the same weight, apart from a large figure of Christ on the cross, a later addition which replaced a much simpler earlier cross, so the coloured glass does all the work.

Much can be said about blue in religious contexts. Most commonly it is symbolic of heaven, but it can also symbolize truth. Here the effect of the deep blue is even more important than its symbolic value. It has an instant calming effect; it - forgive the platitude of speech - is simply mesmerising. I sat down, not surprising given all the bags I was lugging around, but so did everybody else who entered the room, including the fractious 3-year old child I had with me. And everybody sat and looked at the colour blue, until we realised that there wasn't just blue. The sections of emerald greens, ruby reds and sunflower yellows in the windows are ever so subtle but still manage to break-up the monotony of a single colour. The eyes have to get accustomed to the light and colour in the room first before they can be appreciated. I hadn't brought my camera, so decided to leave after a few minutes to come back the following day. My child however wanted to go back 'into the lovely dark blue room' after a few yards and sat and stared once more. Interestingly it doesn't seem to be easy to capture this large scale blue space in pictures. I have trawled the web and looked at the two publications available, but none of photographs come close to the intensity of the real experience of being surrounded by blue in the Gedächtniskirche.

The individual cells of the honeycomb structure are fractured, making the glass look as if it had been blown out and put back together using the broken pieces. I was wondering whether this was on Eiermann's or Loire's mind. Even if the symbolism is accidental, the fractured nature of the windows is surely a reflection of the shattered outside world this building rose from. The calm and beauty of the interior must have been particularly poignant for visitors in the early 1960s, who still had to walk past many a ruin to get to this daring new building.

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