Interviewed in Zagreb 22 October 2010
ORIS: Enlightenment and Romanticism are the opposite poles of the two great currents of the German history of culture and spirit. In recent German architecture, the paradigms of these two poles are probably Mies’s New Gallery and Scharoun’s Philharmonic Building. Considering this duality, your opus belongs to the realm of Romanticism, wouldn’t you agree? I am thinking of your exceptional work, the Church of St Mary in Neviges, which is characterized by a strong sculptural nature and a complete freedom from any kind of rational bounds.
Gottfried Böhm: I do not know. I can only say that I have a far more intense relationship with Mies than the so-called Romantics you mentioned. As a young man, I made a point of travelling to Mies. I visited him in Chicago in the early 1950s and I was very impressed by our talks and everything else. He was incredibly kind. I had the impression that he thought the world of my father. He talked very nicely about his visit to Cologne, where he saw my first built work, the Kolumba Chapel. Interestingly, he recommended that I get in touch with Frank Lloyd Wright, which surprised me at the time. Still, I built differently than him. Perhaps it is indeed as you say.
ORIS: We should mention your love for sculpture and, of course, your study of sculpture.
Gottfried Böhm: Yes, I studied sculpture even before architecture. My father told me: ‘Study sculpture, but take a look at the other side, at architecture.’ I was into sculpture for a long time.
ORIS: Where did you study sculpture? Tell us more about how your relation to sculpture and sculptural forms. What did you achieve or try to explore by this?
Gottfried Böhm: I studied in Munich. The sculptor Hänselmann was a very good teacher, a master of the technique, but not only that. Of course, it influenced my architecture, or at least that is what people say. Even I believe that the influence was strong.
Peter Böhm: The influence of Mies’s architecture on the work of my father was very clear in his first residential building in Cologne Weiss, but there are also noticeable differences. Formally, there are many similarities in the exterior of the building, such as the steel structure, but it has a completely different emotional focus. It has nothing of that cool elegance. The materials did not include onyx but terracotta bricks. In fact, everything was defined by life as he imagined it, but the architectural stringency of the layout was determined by rationality.
ORIS: You’ve already mentioned your father, Dominikus Böhm. To what extent was your architectural work influenced by that link with tradition? It was something personal, which your sons then inherited from you. The Austrian theORISt of architecture Günther Feuerstein, who was very influential in the 1970s, once said: ‘Gottfried Böhm has inherited much of the spirit of his father.’ Was he really such a forming influence on you?
Gottfried Böhm: I hope so and I am glad that there is such an impression. My father made contact with Hänselmann and always supported my professional plans. Actually, he wanted me to become his architectural heir, of course, so he told me to complement my studies at the Academy with the courses at the Technical University in order to learn more about architecture.
ORIS: Your family has four generations of architects now, just like in the old times, when family secrets were transmitted from father to son. Today we have state schools, everyone knows everything, but surely, some personal, intimate experiences are passed within the family. Is there something like that?
Gottfried Böhm: On the one hand, my father was a monumental person. On the other, he was very warm, you could see this warmth in his works. Even as a child, I followed the architectural work of my father with much interest. And he made me participate very intensely in his thought processes. The spaces he created promote life, there is always something motivating outside and inside. I can only hope that I have something similar inside me. I believe that I impart these values to my sons in a similar way.
Peter Böhm: I see that emotional character too. But isn’t it necessary to examine what the building expresses and what it is intended to express? It is not always just about the formal aspect, but also about the intention to express one’s own understanding of the world, which was contained in the Expressionism of my grandfather.
ORIS: It seems that you find the emotional component very important in the experience of architecture.
Gottfried Böhm: Yes. I certainly appreciate the emotional component in the experience of architecture.
ORIS: When we look at your first buildings, the churches from the 1950s, we see them as experiments, especially with regard to their structure, which is very strong. Then there are the very powerful Cubist works in Kassel or Grevenbroich, the simple, strong forms. In the meantime, a sudden and occasional influence of Mies. Later, in the 1960s, expressiveness makes its appearance. What we find interesting are the drawings that were published. They look like the drawings of the Expressionists from the 1920s. What happened to Expressionism? Today we appreciate people like Alvar Aalto or Barragán, who took the International Style and gave it something national, something from their own tradition. Did you consciously want to connect the International Style with German Expressionism? Was it your goal or just the result of a feeling?
Gottfried Böhm: This is difficult to trace back. Should it have been a German take on Mies? I don’t really think so. The mentioned house in Cologne Weiss was influenced by Mies, but also largely by my family: the way children wanted to live there, the things that were important for the family. The Cologne Weiss house was created after my trip to America and shows a great influence by Mies. Yet his influence was humanized by the world view I inherited from my father.
ORIS: Let us go back to the decision for the expressive form. Was it also a kind of reaction to the architecture of the ‘economic miracle’, which in fact trivialized the International Style?
Gottfried Böhm: Could be.
Peter Böhm: You are being so vague now, but it certainly was the case. You were strongly opposed to the kind of functionality as it was interpreted at the time. In fact, you didn’t see the functions of a building as formal processes that should take place in it, as Functionalism did, but you always wanted to express them within the living aspect of the building. In the works of my father, Expressionism is not only a quest for a formal expressive form, but also a quest for content. There is always the wish to introduce a personal understanding of life, and this would also be my answer to the question about what the family shares. From the Kolumba chapel to the most recent projects, it appears again and again, virtually in every project.
ORIS: From your first work, Madonna in the Ruins (Madonna in den Trümmern) in the devastated Kolumba church in Cologne, till the 1960s, you built some 40 churches. It would be interesting to know how you made the basic decisions, which principles you considered important. Maybe you can tell us about the relation between your work and the work of other significant church builders, such as Rudolf Schwarz, with whom you cooperated for a time.
Gottfried Böhm: Yes, I worked for him for some time as a young man. He was the city architect of Cologne and I was glad to work with him. He was a friend of my father, the two of them had already worked together.
ORIS: Schwarz and your father belonged to the new movement for a new church. They were pioneers of new church building. The church, that is church architecture, was in a crisis, there had to be a renewal process, it was necessary to go back to the past and start anew in another direction.
Gottfried Böhm: Rudolf Schwarz had a big role in that new movement. He was an interesting person in general. However, our contact was not particularly intense.
Peter Böhm: Perhaps it should be pointed out that he was primarily a theORISt.
Gottfried Böhm: Curiously, his theories were more interesting than what he was building later, in the 1950s. His most interesting building was the Fronleichnam church in Aachen, a great building, but created back in the 1920s.
ORIS: You further developed the principles of new church building, which were started by your father. Did you transform those ideas?
Gottfried Böhm: Yes. It was the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962), so the understanding of liturgy became a little fresher, freer, more open, which was welcomed by us and other architects.
ORIS: You built churches. Some architects believe there is nothing more important than building churches, since they don’t have everyday functions, and their functions are not as important as the symbolic sacred space. It is always a specific, hard task. Do you feel a special love for church buildings?
Gottfried Böhm: Of course, I think that everybody has it, that special love for a good church building, regardless of whether one is a Christian or not. We love to look at beautiful cathedrals. A good church building offers more than a normal building, it exalts.
ORIS: It is something irrational, but there is also the idea of a community.
Gottfried Böhm: Of course, the idea of a community as well.
ORIS: I mean, church architecture arose from the human awareness of mortality. It expresses the need to bridge time, it fights against time. The most important tasks of architecture are churches, monuments, something that is left after us.
Gottfried Böhm: It was understood in different ways. Rudolf Schwarz did not really want to see it in such a mystical way. The Fronleichnam church expressed the greatness of life in relation to his faith in God.
Peter Böhm: I believe that the process of change is always ongoing. My church is different from my father’s church; changes are going in the direction of something purer and more reduced, the emotional quality of a space also becomes a topic. Space as such has become the function of the church. The possibility of having liturgy inside that space is almost secondary. Of course, it is possible in almost any space. Emotions are the true content. I think that more and more importance is given to what is very quiet and calm. Only the light, only simplicity, the existence of walls, and the contemplation of space – this is prayer, in fact. The simplicity of walls is the symbol of the simplicity of our existence.
ORIS: The media offer us everything today, suggesting everything by images alone. When something is written, like a novel in which there are no pictures, we ‘see’ what happens anyway. Our experience of a book is more powerful without pictures. But symbols are even more powerful, they are not a language, we need to find the meaning ourselves. So I think that symbols are even more important today. We should think more about the importance of symbols in our world.
Peter Böhm: Under normal circumstances, the need for churches might be explained by the fact of death. Maybe I am just talking about myself and inferring a general meaning, but I believe that traditional symbols are less important than the symbols that we simply feel. A wall exists, that is all. A simple existence that is not cluttered with a variety of amenities.
ORIS: Another theme of yours, quite topical today, is building in a historic, inherited environment, in a location with a context. When we think of Bensberg City Hall, where the old and the new naturally overlap, we can cite William Curtis. He describes the forms of City Hall as ‘neo-medieval’. He understands it as ‘organic romanticism’, he sees the art of crafts and a strongly revalued relationship towards the past. Building in a historical context is as topical today as at any other period. What could you say from experience in that sense?
Gottfried Böhm: It is important that we want to do something together. When we build the new, it must also be comfortable for the old, so to speak. Bensberg was determined to a large extent by my sculptural experience. But you can also notice a big influence of my father.
ORIS: I think what Curtis wrote was somehow wrong. I do not see that building as either romantic or medieval. I believe that treating concrete as a sculpture was very modern for that period.
ORIS: This does not mean that it is not modern, but that there is a relation to the castle located there etc. The main tendency is to establish integrity.
Peter Böhm: It was the intention of Gottfried Böhm, but maybe we should replace the concept of romanticism with the concept of emotionality. For me, romanticism really means a reactionary language of forms. What is most important, I think, is the intention to find completely new forms. Of course, it is also an effort to fit into the environment in order to find a form that establishes a relationship. I am bothered by the reactionary nature of romanticism.
ORIS: It is the idea of Romanticism as a period when, for the first time, the individual with his troubles and desires came to the fore. In that sense, it is also modern.
Peter Böhm: Fine, if we understand Romanticism to mean that.
Gottfried Böhm: Individuality is certainly something which one always strives for.
Peter Böhm: The individual and the community: this is another aspect that tells us that human life needs to find an expression and living space.
ORIS: What does time mean to you? What is time and what is the civilization that your architecture and construction must adapt to?
Gottfried Böhm: It must be the relationship towards the state of the art materials. The use of concrete was already important to my father, Dominikus Böhm. As a boy, I watched the construction of the vault for his church of St John the Baptist in Ulm: the Rabitz meshes with the plaster base were attached to the steel structure that determined the shape of the vault. As a student, I was interested in the possibilities of suspended concrete iron meshes. I made suspended ceilings that looked like textile textures (Gewebedecken). These were concrete shells stabilized with steel ropes. Then I gradually reached the free structure. Even in my father’s work, I was particularly fascinated by the fact that the ceilings and walls of some churches were a single structure. Then I tried to develop structures that would interconnect walls as load-bearing creations.
Peter Böhm: The Frielingsdorf church by Dominikus Böhm? In that church, the vault reaches the floor.
Gottfried Böhm: Yes, but they built with meshes in Frielingsdorf too. Also in Bischofsheim, where the concrete vault actually has the form of a parabola, or take St Engelbert; these are massive, splendid buildings. In retrospect, I believe this development had a major role. My sculptural studies were also important: I saw space in three dimensions, as well as outside space and its possibilities.
ORIS: Did you, as a sculptor, also make clay models as first sketches? Was it so from the beginning or only later?
Gottfried Böhm: It happened in parallel, from a very early time.
ORIS: In the late 1960s, architectural discourse in Germany and elsewhere started questioning and evaluating the social relevance of architecture. Your work also paid attention to social housing, as shown by the example of the wonderful children’s village of Bensberg, where the domination of expressive, distinctive form was sacrificed to social engagement. To some extent, the task was transformed and probably corrected.
Peter Böhm: There is also the question of whether the notion of the expressive can be understood differently. In the children’s village, particular buildings are grouped in a wide circle around the ‘tent’, the chapel. It expresses the idea of living together in the children’s village.
ORIS: It also expresses the symbolic character of togetherness.
Gottfried Böhm: It can be understood that way.
Peter Böhm: Perhaps less symbolically, I would say that it is a direct transfer of the idea of living together. The intention is not to symbolize something, but simply to build a life together. Then it has its own expression, of course, but the translation of a functional idea stands in the foreground. The way of living together in such a children’s village. I say that because the concepts of Expressionism and expressive are so difficult. Something is expressed automatically, but it is not necessarily programmatic, symbolic, it results directly from the function.
Gottfried Böhm: It was truly a special task, to build something like that for poor children, and then it was a real pleasure to see the cheerful children at play. It seems that everything still works very well and is well maintained.
ORIS: I think that the children’s village goes well with Structuralism, a style that is again very current today. When you worked with concrete, were you interested in Japanese Metabolism?
Peter Böhm: You are thinking about the structures where many identical houses are placed side by side, like the Plug-in-Cities, where containers are piled on top of each other. Only later did the interest arise for such Walking Cities, Peter Cook, Archigram etc. But the children’s village shows simply the idea that identical houses are a result of their function. How to achieve the cohesion, looking for the meaning of the shared and the individual, of individual houses surrounding shared contents. It is not as in Structuralism, where structure is formed first and then filled with content; it is created automatically, and the structures are free forms, which may result from chance. Still, I believe there was the intention not to take formalism too far, but always to include rational elements. Very specific factors that have to be complied with result in identical houses. My father found it very important to bring these intentions and emotional quality to rational direction. This is the case of Neviges, which is nowhere as formalistic as it looks at first glance, but it is very developed. There is a competition project of my grandfather Dominikus Böhm for the Frauenkirche in Frankfurt, a bare space surrounded by numerous chapels. Neviges has something similar, but some of the chapels are more significant and larger, while others are less important and smaller. When this ground plan with large and small chapels is covered by a folded structure, it automatically results in a certain basic structure.
ORIS: In our opinion, that formal aspect of the church in Neviges is much less present in the interior than on the exterior.
Peter Böhm: There is the question of the degree to which the outside of the volume was designed to make the interior look like its negative.
Gottfried Böhm: I think it was the opposite: it develops from the inside to the outside, which is the path and the goal. The Chapel of Grace is slightly off-centre. This is how it was envisioned, starting from the inside, the chapel of the sacraments is the real space… In addition, the terrain was so convenient; the street goes round the building and at the back reaches the church’s upper level. The position was beautiful.
Peter Böhm: My father set up the chapels in accordance with philosophical considerations, in relation to the size and position. At first, the decisions were related to the layout, the folded structure was developed in parallel. The structure obtained its load-bearing capacity by means of the folds, which developed from the layout.
ORIS: You have four sons, three of them are architects. Do you still work with them on their projects, your projects? Do they seek your advice?
Gottfried Böhm: They do, thank God. It seems they like to work with me for competitions and the like. After all, I am the cheapest labour.
Peter Böhm: Recently we worked together on a competition project for a university building in Berlin. When I felt that it was his project, I did not sign it. It was Gottfried Böhm.
ORIS: Now that you are over 90, when you look back, what project or house would you prefer to talk about?
Gottfried Böhm: If we talk about houses, it would be the mentioned house in Cologne Weiss, which is still very dear to me. Churches are not comparable, they are something else entirely. The church in Neviges is special because of its size, but I personally love the Church of the Resurrection in Melaten.
ORIS: Why is it so dear to you?
Gottfried Böhm: It is hard to express. Maybe that church radiates a special calm to a greater extent than Neviges, although it is also very complicated. I am happy that you are particularly interested in the church in Melaten. It is one of my last and my favourite churches. But it is generally not well known.
ORIS: Now a few words about your works of different functions. It was already in 1985 that you suggested a glass dome for the Reichstag building in Berlin. Later it was realized by Foster. What prevented your work from developing?
Gottfried Böhm: I don’t know either.
Peter Böhm: Regarding the Reichstag dome, let me say that the same procedures are always applied even to mainstream architecture. It is not mainstream, it is high-quality architecture, but I believe that my father took a stand and certainly showed his attitude towards function and life. For example, the dome was supposed to contain the plenary hall, but now the plenum takes place down there in the building, while the dome is just glass, only a sign. It was too little for him, which is symptomatic. He believed that the dome had to contain the plenary hall to show everyone in the city that the lawmakers were sitting up there. Just like the glass shell, it is related to the democratic outlook. The first concept already included a glass dome, more or less, while the second draft made that intention more prominent, with an open shell, which belonged to the new language that he developed for the Ota Hall in Tokyo. For that hall, he developed a dome of opening shells. That opening was also a symbol of democracy. The starting points are completely different from Foster’s dome.
Gottfried Böhm: We designed it together...
Peter Böhm: It was your dome. There has been a discussion about whether today, in a democracy, there is a need for such a symbol as a dome, a symbol of power. His attitude was totally committed: it is precisely in a democracy that one has to be sensible about transparency, not hiding anything. It was not understood well in the discussion. The outcome of the following competition did not include a dome. Out of 150 or 200 submitted works, only three had a dome. It was the background of functions and ideas. I also do not believe that the pleasure of a dome should be simply torn out of the human soul, it is beautiful to crown a city in this way. It is not understandable that we should give up this pleasure for some coy and unclear ideological reasons. It is another aspect of our family tradition, which I hope applies to me too: the heart has a special meaning as a means of regulation, we do not like excessive intellectuality. It was already so when Rudolf Schwarz and Dominikus Böhm had an interesting dialogue. A dialogue between an intellectual and my grandfather.
ORIS: You won the Pritzker Prize 25 years ago. What did it mean to you?
Gottfried Böhm: It was a joy.
ORIS: What did it mean for the German architecture? Joy?
Gottfried Böhm: I doubt that all Germans celebrated it, but many colleagues were very glad, many felt that it was appropriate.
ORIS: Was your father still alive?
Gottfried Böhm: No, but my wife was delighted, I have a very nice wife, who is an architect too. Despite our four children, she has always been a companion with a critical attitude. She also did very original small-scale works, renovations, like the house where we live now. We no longer live in the Cologne Weiss house, now I live closer to my office. My wife did a very original job turning an old tram depot into two apartments. Now we live in one of them. She made small interventions in the old rooms to create impressive spaces. The whole house radiates a special spirit.
Peter Böhm: Her work made her the opposition. Maybe it is the wrong word, but her projects were never similar to my father’s. Her starting points were completely different, much more openly romantic.
ORIS: We liked it when you talked about the spirit. Romanticism and the spirit are not necessarily the same.