Sat, November 27, 2021


Gottfried Böhm, Pritzker-winning architect who sculpted in concrete, dies at 101

Gottfried Böhm, a third-generation architect who helped rebuild his native Germany in the decades after World War II, designing jewellike churches and light-filled civic centers en route to winning the Pritzker Prize, architectures top honor, died June 9 at his home in Cologne, Germany. He was 101.

His son Paul, a fellow architect, confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause.

Böhm, who trained as a sculptor as well as an architect, often modeled his buildings out of clay or Plasticine, designing structures that rose like concrete mountains over a forest or town. Best known for monumental buildings such as the Neviges pilgrimage church and Bensberg City Hall, both built in Germany in the late 1960s, he also designed glass-and-steel theaters, office towers and apartment buildings.

In 1986 he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize for architecture. "His highly evocative handiwork combines much that we have inherited from our ancestors with much that we have but newly acquired - an uncanny and exhilarating marriage," the citation said.

Indeed, Böhm often spoke of linking the present and the past in his work, designing buildings that sat atop ruins, incorporated the structure of a neighboring 19th-century pub or evoked the medieval architecture of a nearby castle. He focused less on honing a particular style than on making sure each building made sense for its environment, whether on a rural hillside or in a bustling city center.

"New buildings should fit naturally into their surroundings, both architecturally and historically, without denying or prettifying the concerns of our time," he said in his Pritzker acceptance speech. "You cannot just quote from history and above all you cannot take it out of context, in however humorous a fashion. On the contrary, history has a natural continuity that must be respected."

In a phone interview, Paul Böhm said that his father had initially resisted becoming an architect, yearning to become a sculptor instead of following his father and paternal grandfather into the family business. History's "natural continuity" apparently won out, although in a sense the elder Böhm never stopped sculpting. "His buildings have always been sculptures in some way," Paul said.

Böhm kept going into the office even after he turned 100, working out of a building that his father, a church architect named Dominikus, had built in 1928, and that three of his four sons occupied after following him into the profession. As a boy, Böhm sat in the office sketching church windows.

He ultimately designed more than 60 churches and had projects worldwide, including in Taiwan and Brazil. But he spent most of his career working in Germany, where he designed a five-story Potsdam theater with curved, cantilevered roofs; a glass pyramid-shaped public library in Ulm; and a new city center in Bergisch Gladbach, which included a multipurpose performance hall with walls clad in terra-cotta tiles.

"He's an individual expressionist, the kind of architect left over from the 1920s," Philip Johnson, who received the inaugural Pritzker Prize in 1979, told the Christian Science Monitor after Böhm won the honor.

Böhm's most revered building was the Mary, Queen of Peace pilgrimage church in Neviges, consecrated in 1968 and variously known as the Mariendom and Wallfahrtsdom. Along with a concrete chapel designed by Le Corbusier in Ronchamp, France, the church is often cited as one of the most important religious buildings of the postwar period.

Built on a hilltop where an image of the Virgin Mary had drawn pilgrims since the late 17th century, the church's concrete exterior was strikingly geometric, topped by jagged cubes and pyramids with angles that suggested the tiled roofline of the surrounding town. Inside, the church opened up like a concrete cave, illuminated by narrow skylights and windows high above the floor.

Arthur Drexler, architecture director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, once described the church as "a brooding apparition, a ghost from the medieval past inexplicably materialized in the midst of a bourgeois townscape."

Böhm, who also designed door handles and vibrant stained glass windows for the building, had a rather more uplifting vision for the space. In an interview last year, he told the German broadcaster DW that he had built the church as a vast tent for the "wandering people of God."

Gottfried Leo Böhm was born in Offenbach am Main, near Frankfurt, on Jan. 23, 1920. He was drafted into the German army during World War II and wounded during the Russia campaign in 1942, according to the New York Times. Four years later, he graduated from what is now the Technical University of Munich.

For his first independent building as an architect, he designed a chapel built on the ruins of St. Kolumba, a Catholic parish church in Cologne that was destroyed during the war. Consecrated in 1950, the building became known as Madonna of the Ruins, after a sculpture of Mary and Jesus that had survived the bombing. The chapel is now part of the Kolumba art museum.

After a few years of working with his father, Böhm sought fresh ideas during a months-long tour in the United States, where he worked with Cajetan Baumann, a Franciscan friar and architect, and met Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He took over his family firm after his father died in 1955, and collaborated for decades with his wife, architect Elisabeth (Haggenmüller) Böhm.

They married in 1948, and she died in 2012. In addition to his son Paul, survivors include three other sons, Stephan, Peter and Markus; a brother; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Although Böhm was part of a group of architects who helped rebuild Cologne after World War II, he came to believe that as much damage was inflicted by the postwar construction boom as by the war itself. New highways were carved through the city and old buildings were torn down, replaced by structures that were sometimes nice to look at but, in his view, did little to promote a sense of community.

"I think the future of architects doesn't lie so much in continuing to fill up the landscape as in bringing back life and order to our cities and towns," he declared in the catalogue of a 1986 exhibit of his sketches. In his Pritzker acceptance speech, he quoted advice his wife had given their children: "Our generation has built a lot, but your generation will have to work hard to heal all that."

Published : June 12, 2021

By : The Nation