Gottfried Böhm was a sculptor among architects. His most revered works resemble jagged concrete mountains, among them the town hall in Bensberg in western Germany that he shaped as a grand fortress and crown of the city. So too the massive pilgrimage church in Neviges near Düsseldorf seems to have been hewn out of the rock and built to last for eternity. What looks so heavy from the outside yet appears almost weightless inside.
This legacy is being celebrated following the death of Gottfried Böhm at the age of 101 on June 9. Such was Böhm’s impact on the architectural world, that he was the only living German to have won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Architects,” which he received in 1986 for his tour de force in Neviges.
Europe’s largest modern cathedral: Mary Queen of Peace, Böhm’s pilgrimage church in Neviges, was completed in 1968
A family tradition
Böhm was born on January 23, 1920 in the town of Offenbach near Frankfurt am Main. The son of Dominikus Böhm, a renowned church builder, Gottfried quickly followed in his father’s footsteps.
Mainly designing churches until the early 1970s, his first house of worship was the Marian Chapel, or “Madonna in the ruins,” in Cologne’s bombed-out st. Kolumba Church in 1947.
Characteristic of Böhm’s early works are a concrete brutalist style and distinctive sculptural quality. This related to Böhm’s concurrent love for the fine arts, explaining why he studied sculpture as well as architecture.
Greatly inspired by the play of light of his father’s churches, Böhm also learned from Rudolf Schwarz, another Rhineland-based church builder whose name is associated with the reconstruction of war-torn Cologne. The young Böhm was also influenced by Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, both of whom he personally met.
After his father’s death, the Offenbach-born architect took over his office in the prestigious Cologne district of Marienburg in 1955. Three of his four sons took the same career path, triggering the nimbus of an “architect dynasty” that Swiss director Maurizius Staerkle-Drux addressed in his feature film Die Böhms – Architektur einer Familie (“The Böhms – architecture of a family”) in 2015.
Already at the biblical age of 93, the architectural patriarch is shown taking a dive into his home pool, which he did every morning before work.
Outsider Gottfried Böhm
Gottfried Böhm was never short on projects, including designs for building set on rather difficult locations.
His Bergischer Löwe (“Mountaineous Lion,” an allusion to the name of the location), that became the community centre of Bergisch Gladbach, succeeded better than his residential quarter in the popular Cologne district of Chorweiler.
Highly praised upon construction, the high-rise housing estate is now considered a lifeless concrete desert that might be comparable to banlieues on the edges of Paris.
Nonetheless, Böhm’s work was duly recognized in 1986 when he received the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize of the trade, for his efforts to reconcile tradition and modernity — most especially in the Neviges cathedral.
Böhm increasingly turned to steel and glass as building materials which eased his way towards lighter, more playful forms, for example at the Hans Otto Theatre, or “Potsdam Oyster,” whose three-tiered shell roof vaguely resembles Sydney’s fabled Opera House.
‘As beautifully as possible’
Despite a resume replete with grand public commissions, the architect also had some defeats. His plans for a walk-in glass dome at the Berlin Reichstag were not accepted — a very similar variant by Norman Foster was instead chosen.
And Böhm was unhappy about the fact that his early work “Madonna in the Ruins” came to be fitted later into the smooth facade of Peter Zumthor’s Cologne Diocesan Museum.
It almost seems that Gottfried Böhm was at home in a different era, which is why he always remained an outsider. Although much cherished as an architect, he never developed an interest in marketing and PR strategies.
Until the very end, he kept his office in a simple building that his father had once built as a home, and where one could detect traces of a long past.
His designs were not based on bold architectural theory, but on the simple principle of “building as well and beautifully as possible.” It’s a vision that lives on.