Austere poetry

Rudolf Schwarz, church builder in post-war Germany, has new converts

There’s something of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins about the designs of German 20th century architect Rudolf Schwarz (1897-1961). Like the poetry, his work has real ­spatial breadth; it’s rich in rhythm, repetition and cadence but it’s devoutly ascetic, riddled with the introspection and self-mortification of a deeply religious Catholic. Schwarz was ­Germany’s pre-eminent church-builder, gener­ating a modern expression for religious architecture as a way of making sense of the chaos of Germany’s post-war period. His need to believe was understandable: in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land God was dead; for Schwarz he was very much alive and never more called for. 

This new book on the architect, by Caruso St John’s Adam Caruso and academic Helen Thomas, reappraises the man and his work, picking up where German historian Wolfgang Pehnt left off in 1997. The book includes lovely record drawings of seven of the major church commissions and two public buildings, plus fabulously atmospheric shots of the buildings by Hélène Binet. While the book aspires to critical objectivity on Schwarz’s work, bringing in the authors’ and Pehnt’s newly translated views as well as the architect’s, in its generosity and layout there’s a sense that Caruso and Thomas are converts, approving of work that ‘engaged with the social and technological upheavals of modernism without subscribing to its utopian ideology’.

To understand why Schwarz rejected this for a more historicist and materially crafted approach, they argue, is to be cognisant of the times he lived in. A teenager during the First World War, Schwarz studied during the depression that gave rise to both National ­Socialism and the Bauhaus and culminated in large scale bombing of German cities. After the briefly mooted Morgenthau Plan, which proposed returning the Ruhr area to a pre-industrial state, Schwarz emerged from the devastation, along with millions of others, to a country in denial and deeply scarred – physically and psychologically. 

Architect for the rebuilding of Cologne under the Marshall Plan, Schwarz was keen to eschew the ‘inappropriate’ language of Bauhaus modernity for one that was connected on a far deeper level with the nation’s memory and psyche; one that acknowledged the loss and destitution but tried to create something from it. This thinking informed his involvement in the 1950 ‘Darm­stadt Discussions’, in which leading German thinkers, among them Martin Heidegger, tried to make sense of the traumatic change in the nation’s identity in the war’s aftermath.

  • St Fronleichnam, Aachen, 1928-1930, north west facade. More influenced by early European modernism than were later works.
    St Fronleichnam, Aachen, 1928-1930, north west facade. More influenced by early European modernism than were later works.
  • St Antonius, Essen-Frohnhausen, 1956-1959, looking north towards the altar.
    St Antonius, Essen-Frohnhausen, 1956-1959, looking north towards the altar.
  • Rudolf Schwarz and the Monumental Order of Things Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas eds. gta Verlag HB £70
    Rudolf Schwarz and the Monumental Order of Things Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas eds. gta Verlag HB £70
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All these notions of ‘creating something familiar from the strange and absent’ are embodied in his most significant church, St Anna Düren (1951-56), constructed from the red sandstone rubble of the original church and topped by a lofty black concrete cross-braced roof. Separated from its tower this is a space of stunning austerity, seemingly windowless from the entrance but revealing a high south wall of glass once you have passed through the dark pilgrimage hall entrance holding St Anna’s reliquary and baptismal font, each emphasised below concrete domes studded by glass lenses – a detail echoed in the ‘tree of life’ formed from the stone of the apse wall. 

As with all Schwarz’s open plan churches, the complexity lies in the section. Wolfgang Pehnt argues that the open plan form was in fact ‘the architype of a homeless people’ left wandering aimlessly, with ‘the superstructure above defining the character of the building’. The ‘God/Man’ analogy here is palpable, especially considering that Schwarz’s shrines, fonts, lecterns and altars on the human plane are ‘like monuments within the urban fabric’. In clear antithesis to his inter-war church of St Fronleichnam (1928-30) in Aachen, influenced far more by the Bauhaus aesthetic, this slow transitioning from dark to light and the metaphorical rather than functional attribution of materials continued in his later works – uncompromisingly so in the case of St Antonius Essen (1956-59), where the bricks set in the insitu concrete grid referenced not the church of old but the pre-war brick housing destroyed around it. The authors call its austerity ‘tough…perhaps too much so’ but not before claiming its deceptively simple plan and section as ‘complex and mysterious.’

 
  • St Anna Dűren, 1951-1956, long section looking north showing the huge south window, its light revealed on passing out of the pilgrimage hall. and the open plan of St Anna Dűren symbolises the wandering of a post-war people.
    St Anna Dűren, 1951-1956, long section looking north showing the huge south window, its light revealed on passing out of the pilgrimage hall. and the open plan of St Anna Dűren symbolises the wandering of a post-war people.
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The sense of aimless wandering seems to be reflected in the book’s layout. Interspersing images of pre-war and post-war churches between essays by the architect, the authors and Pehnt seems obvious, but is thrown by Caruso’s drawings of the edi­fices at the end, each of which is preceded by Schwarz’s ­description. Because of their complexity you find yourself constantly flicking between essay, Binet’s stoic photos and the drawings and architect’s text. It might have been easier to put the relevant content in the same section; then again, this might not conjure the approach of gradual revelation that seems so expressive of Schwarz’s oeuvre.

The 1960s and 70s saw more critical views of his work come to the fore and while Schwarz seemed to pre-empt changes in church design evinced by the Second Vatican Council of 1962, some later critics ‘objected to his conception of the liturgy to his spatial types’ and his designs’ ‘grim determination’, its ‘decrees’. But the architect showed he could give as good as he got when he oddly blamed the rupture in the western tradition not just on Nazism but the ‘impertinent and overexcited terrorists’ of the Bauhaus. In the interview with Schwarz’s wife Maria you feel that, towards the end of his life, Schwarz railed against the wilful individualism of new church architecture for lacking the rootedness he felt was so critical in making peace with the past. ‘They go searching through every nook and cranny of architecture to see if they can’t find a motif that has been forgotten,’ he said disparagingly, ‘and rack their brains to see if they can come up with something that has never yet existed.’


Rudolf Schwarz and the Monumental Order of Things, by Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas eds. gta Verlag, HB, £70

Available at RIBA Bookshops