Reframing the Familiar
A prismatic concrete church located on of the most revered pilgrimage sites in Germany. Composed of concrete and possessing minimal illumination, the Pilgrimage Church is Cavernous, shadowed, and dynamic. Designed by Gottfried Böhm as part of a competition in the early 1960s and completed in 1968, the Brutalist Pilgrimage Church rises from the small town of Neviges like a sharp extension of the rocky hill on which it sits. Referred to locally as the Mariendom, or the Church of Mary, Queen of Peace, the church is the second largest in the Archbishopric of Cologne. At first glance, it appears to be the experiential inverse of its more famous and much older neighbor. Where the Cologne Cathedral is the culmination of the airy, ornate, and symmetrical Gothic style, the Mariendom is prismatic, asymmetrical, and dark. The rough, faceted concrete in Neviges resembles a natural cave, sunken into the hill on which the church sits. Gottfried Böhm turned many of the archetypal traits of Christian sacred space on their head. Through the harsh contrast of light and shadow, considered echoes, heavy materials, and intentional but minimal apertures he crafted an insular and reverential atmosphere. In the Pilgrimage Church, the creation of a primitive sacred atmosphere transcends traditional archetypal form. Böhm’s cavernous Mariendom is timeless, seemingly hewn from the rock it sits on. Although challenging, its cave-like interior is somehow comforting and familiar, in an almost primitive manner. Its atmospheric influence extends into the community which surrounds it, and it forms a unique internal experience that is both intimate and monumental.
architecture, sacred, spiritual, brutalism, materiality, cologne school
The stone prism of the church sits at the end of a winding and enclosed sacred way.
The story of the pilgrimage site began with the 1676 arrival of Franciscans in Neviges. In 1680, Father Antonius Schirley claimed to hear the voice of Mary while he was praying before an image of the Immaculate Conception. Per the voice’s request, he sent the image to the town of Neviges. The next year, in 1681, local ruler Prince-Bishop Ferdinand von Fürstenberg of Paderborn and Münster was healed of a life-threatening illness, a miracle which he attributed to the sacred image. Following his recovery, He traveled to Neviges to give thanks, beginning centuries of pilgrimage. Following its completion, the monastery and a larger church built in 1728 served to mark the site for the ever-increasing number of pilgrims. By the early 1900s, ten thousand pilgrims per day were normal. As waves of conflict swept through Europe during the twentieth century, the site hosted worship services for hundreds of thousands annually. In 1935, following the rise of the Nazi Party, over 340,000 concerned pilgrims visited the site.¹
In response to the swelling numbers of faithful, the Franciscans tried three separate times to construct a larger church complex. Initially, their intentions were thwarted by political complications. The first two attempts were stymied by World Wars I and II. The third attempt took the form of a juried competition, announced by the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings in 1959. Gottfried Böhm was one of seventeen architects invited to participate. Like much of his competition, he was a member of the exclusive Cologne school of architecture, an informal group of architects characterized by their ties to the legacy of the Archbishopric of Cologne. Archbishop Frings was heavily involved with the competition, and showed a strong preference to Böhm’s design throughout the selection process. After the finalists were announced, he officially encouraged the jury to pay special attention to Böhm’s proposal.² They ultimately agreed with the Archbishop, and selected Böhm as the project architect.
The rough material picks up all of the light passing through the church interior, revealing its depth.
The threshold of the Mariendom is an extension at the traditional footpath followed by pilgrims to the site. The Mariendom’s jagged form rises high over the surrounding buildings in downtown Neviges. The distinctive silhouette of the roof paired with its inclusion in signage and local marketing keeps the church constantly in view. The surrounding monastery’s complex structures frame a stepped plaza that rises from the low street to the monolithic church. From the base of Via Sacra, the entry to the Mariendom is masked by the change in elevation. This reinforces a reading of the primary form as a rocky extension of the hill on which it sits. The ascension of the Via Sacra is mirrored in the stepped concrete forms to the left and overgrown wall to the right, closing off views to the surrounding village while framing the monolith of the church. The climb expands into a wide piazza that fronts the main building, populated with low, identical trees. Jagged peaks of the structure are visible through the branches, and below the foliage, a deep subtraction at the Mariendom’s base beckons like the entry of a cave.
Acoustic Refraction and Compression
The prismatic ceiling bounces sound from the altar and the balconies so that it seems to come from everywhere. The low entry belies the vast interior.
The threshold immediately releases into the middle of the church. The fragmented interior creates a range of possible routes for visitors to explore.
Interior lighting is sparse and intentional. Directed rays illuminate key moments.
" Deep Shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy. " — Juhanni Pallasmaa³
A focal glow may be emitted from physically inaccessible spaces, such as windows or recesses. Illumination within the Mariendom is sparse and intentional. Artificial light sources are subdued, their sources obscured. Most interior light and color emanates from the massive stained glass windows, which start at ground level and extend varying distances towards the ceiling. None permit exterior views. Rather, they encourage a continued contemplation of the interior by illuminating key artifacts and surfaces. They are located in chapel spaces and around programmatic elements. The proportions of each window are unique. Most possess a small quantity of red glazing which casts a disproportionately intense deep crimson hue across the monochrome concrete. This color grading, though pervasive, is relatively mild in person. However, its effect is inseparable from the atmosphere of the space, and is enhanced in most photographs, drawings, and verbal descriptions.
The columns holding up the ceiling are asymmetrical and washed in red light from the rose-colored windows.
Pinpricks of Light
The glittering of candles provides some of the few points of bright light inside.
At the time of construction, the massive triangulated and unsupported span was unprecedented. The concrete facets distribute the load to the angled walls. The structure is incorporated rather than expressed. Lack of visible joints and distortion of vertical lines within the space make and distortion of vertical lines within the space make reading scale difficult. The result is a cave-like interior volume that seems to have been carved from a mountain. Irregular concrete stalagmites splinter, shrink, and disappear into the darkness overhead, further pushing the concrete ceiling upward. The largest of the support stalagmites is off-center, disappearing against the monochrome of the concrete walls. Overhead, the tent-like facets seem distant, unsupported, and expansive. This span attempts to create a “piazza-like interior.”⁴ The side chapels and galleries are organized as surrounding buildings that front the public space.
The snapping of fingers reverberates around the entire space, echoing through the choir and chapels before returning to the ears of an observer. The echoes are encouraged, mitigated occasionally through arrays of cylindrical subtractions in the concrete walls. The refraction of sound waves off the angled surfaces disguises the source of most sounds. Voices and music are as loud in the side chapels as in the main nave. From some imagined space above and beyond the balconies emanates the sound of monks singing. The chanting of the Franciscan brothers accentuates the echoes, reflecting off of the prismatic ceiling and filling the space with deep, pulsing verses. Their reverberating refrains overpower and absorb the echoes of visitors' voices. Sounds seem to emanate from imagined spaces beyond the building envelope. The sounds of voices are projected from spaces that do not exist. This expands a visitor's perception of the interior, further exaggerating the already substantial scale of the church.
The Pilgrimage Church employs shadow as an art gallery employs light. Deep shadows fading into black suggests destinations within and beyond visitors' field of view. While some of these destinations are physically occupiable spaces, others operate as mentally or visually accessible objects, paths, or zones. The initial shock of inky black gives way to layers of rose-colored shadows. The low, compact threshold release into a void is sensed immediately through acoustic cues, and slowly revealed as your eyes adjust from the exterior daylight. It takes your eyes a moment to grow attuned to the sudden abundance of rich shadows, and every time they pass over an intermittent aperture they must adjust again. The base canvas of shadow is broken via two primary methods: through a focal glow illuminating spaces, limited illumination interior lighting is sparse and intentional. Directed rays illuminate key moments. apertures, or artifacts of interest and through distant pinprick apertures which blur the perception of scale.
Gerhard Haun, The Mariendom Neviges, 3rd ed., Translated by Katherine Vanovitch, Lindenberg: Kunstverlag Josef Fink (2017), 3.
Karl Kiem, “The Many-layered Concrete Rock: The Pilgrimage Church in Neviges,” DAM (2006).
Juhani Pallasmaa, “An Architecture of the Seven Senses,” Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, New York: William Stout Publishers, (2006), 34.
Haun, Mariendom Neviges, 14.