Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Re-Wreckovating the Cathedral of Berlin

The church of St Hedwig in Berlin was constructed over the middle decades of the 18th century, on land donated for the purpose by the Calvinist King of Prussia, Frederick II, and consecrated in 1773. Between 1930 and 1932, the interior was modified so that it could become the cathedral of the newly-created Catholic diocese of Berlin, which was raised to the status of an archbishopric in 1994.

The interior in 1886
The exterior after post-war restorations
During the Second World War, the church’s distinctively shaped dome was completely destroyed, and the interior gutted, by a fire-bomb. It was then rebuilt with this strange arrangement, opening up a large hole in the floor to expose the bulk of the crypt. The large pillar that unites the altars of the upper and lower churches probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

image from wikipedia

This design, which clashes in a particularly unattractive way with the building’s neo-Classical exterior, was completed in 1963.

Well has it been said that nothing ages so quickly as the modern, and the Archdiocese of Berlin is now proposing an extensive remodelling of the entire cathedral for the 3rd time in less than a century. The new design is the result of a competition among architectural firms held by the Archdiocese; the winners are Sichau & Walter GmbH Architects and Leo Zogmayer. It proposes to close the massive hole in the floor of the cathedral, separating the crypt from the upper church, and turning it into a combination baptistery and chapel for Masses with smaller groups. Both spaces will then be completely redesigned; the complete set of new proposals can be seen in a brochure published on the website of the Archdiocese.

The upper church will become a true church-in-the-round, with a circular white altar shaped like a coffee cup. There will be no pews, but rather specially designed “liturgical chairs.” The “presider’s chair” will be set off from the rest by being slightly elevated and of a different color; an ambo will be placed in between the chair and the altar.
The proposed new interior
The same as seen from above
The brochure describes it thus:
… the liturgical gathering will be configured in the form of a circular communal room. The cathedral community gathers in a concentric circle around the communal centre of the altar. In spite of the known reservations and contrary to liturgical space usage, the place for the altar has indeed been recommended to be in the middle of the gathering in the real centre of the cylindrical room. This point - exactly beneath the dome opening and over the cylindrical baptismal font - will be perceived as the strongest point of the whole church space by everyone who enters the church.
The positioning is unfamiliar for many celebrants, but for the priest, unlike at the presider’s chair or at the ambo, direct eye contact with the community gathered is not a defining criteria.
The liturgical places are located at the same level as the gathered community, who are essential liturgists here in the circle (translator’s note: the German is “im Rang”, a term usually associated with theatres). … The cathedra and priests’ chairs are differentiated from the community’s seats by height and color and the place of the presiders is clearly indicated. …
The often mentioned problems of the confrontation between the liturgical participants with those directly opposite are not an issue with the circular form. Unlike in rigid rows, one can look around the circle of the gathered community in which one feels secure. Specifically drafted "liturgical chairs" have been deliberately suggested instead of pews. In union, the chairs create a light, transparent network. The floor remains a visible and palpable constitutive, fundamental element of the architecture. …
Altar and Ambo
The altar takes the form of a lightly modified hemisphere which is a complementary response to the dome stretching over the central room. The static limestone hemisphere fixed in one place asserts itself as iconic as well as liturgical in the monumental room. As the mighty stone altar barely seems to touch the floor, it appears both massive as well as weightless.
The halving of the ideal shape of the ball has a symbolic meaning: what appears to be divided and broken in the dualistic world, should be made whole in the performance of the celebration.
The ambo is finished in the same stone as the altar. The reduced cuboid shape conforms to the minimalistic geometric figure of the hemispheric altar.
The positioning of the ambo has been calculated according to the demand that no liturgical participant should sit behind the celebrant/lector. …
The design of the upper church does not quite revel in the ugliness seen in so many modern church designs, especially in Germany, but featurelessness has an ugliness of its own. There is, however, at least a nod toward the idea that the altar should be the focus of the church. In that sense, the arrangement of the lower church is even more badly conceived. Here the baptismal font will be larger than the altar itself, to accomodate baptisms by immersion, and positioned in the center, directly underneath the main altar of the upper church. An altar and ambo will be set in a line with the presider’s chair to either side of the font.
A cut-away view of the lower church
Close up of the baptiestery/chapel
Very possibly, though, the worst feature will be the Sacrament Chapel, which will reuse the tabernacle from the present arrangement of the lower church. As described in the brochure:
This prominently placed room for devotions, adoration, meditation and small group liturgies is designed to be a place of silence. Spacial concentration, meditative lighting - by daylight as well as in the evening (high narrow window out of real antique glass) and the eastern oriented location of the tabernacle (Schwerd/Förster, 1963) which serves as an exemplary element of historical continuity, make this chapel a high-level contemplative center.
It will be interesting to see what kind of “small group liturgies” are celebrated in a Sacrament chapel without an altar.
Part of the floor plan, showing how the Sacrament Chapel will be “prominently” isolated from the main body of the Cathedral.
The interior of the Evangelical Cathedral of Berlin makes for an interesting contrast. (click for larger view)

Danke dem Fischer, der übersetzt hat!

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