saai | Archive for Architecture and Engineering

Digital Collection Egon Eiermann

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church)


Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church)

After World War II all that was left of the old church, built in 1890-1895 by Franz Sehwechten as both a stately parish church and a highly symbolic memorial to the first German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I, was a monumental gutted ruin. lt was not long before a campaign was launched to rebuild this landmark building in the lively center of West Berlin, and in 1956 a limited competition was held. Invited were nine architects who had experience in modern church architecture, including Egon Eiermann, who had built the Matthäuskirche (Church of St. Matthew) in Pforzheim three years earlier. After the second stage of the competition he eventually won the commission, albeit with the stipulation that the ruin of the old bell tower-known as the "hollow tooth"–which he had wanted to raze in his original competition entries would have to be incorporated into the plan. With great reluctance the architect submitted to this demand, which was however reinforced by a large part of the population. In a poll taken by the tabloid press, some forty-six thousand Berliners had protested vehemently, in just a few days, against the demolition of this "prettiest ruin in the city."

Only then did Eiermann, who devoted himself to the task with the greatest personal commitment and with complete disregard for both his physical health and the state of his own finances, undertake the lengthy task of reworking his winning entry into the final version that was eventually built. The stump of the ruined tower was left standing, and around it were placed, in blatant contrast but also with subtle urbanistic nuances, his new structures: the parish center known as "Foyer," the octagon of the new church, a new bell tower on a hexagonal plan, and a small rectangular chapel. For budgetary reasons an additional small tower next to the chapel was not built. A large rectangular platform, raised six steps above street level, provides a spatial link for the individual elements and separates the ensemble, reminiscent of Italian "church families" as found in Pisa or Pescara, from the somewhat turbulent surrounding area.

Long before the entire project was completed, the church itself was consecrated in late 1961. At that time-shortly after the Berlin Wall had been built-it began to acquire great political significance because it was regarded as a manifest expression of the newly revived role of the church in society and of the presence of the "Free West" in the walled-in city of West Berlin.

The comments of the architecture journals were rather ambivalent at first. The obvious contrast, so impressive and satisfying today, between the Wilhelminian ruin of the tower and the modern steel and concrete buildings was dismissed especially by some critics as a mere curiosity. Others, bound to a strictly functionalist way of thinking, objected to details such as the allegedly unnecessary glazing of the bell tower, or the deviating dimensions of the honeycomb panels on the inner and outer leaf of the octagonal church, which Eiermann had chosen with an eye to their appearance, both from nearby and afar.

The Berliners, however, who had initially been extremely wary of Eiermann's plans and whose comments had occasionally approached libel, soon developed a liking for the new buildings, nicknaming them "lipstick and powder compact" quite fittingly in view of their object-like character. And they became extremely fond of the interior of the new church, in which the predominantly blue light shining through the glazing created a peaceful, almost mystical atmosphere. Eiermann had designed the glazing of the double concrete shell of the building-which also served to insulate the interior from the noise of the city-in collaboration with French glass artist Gabriel Loire from Chartres. Today the Gedächtniskirche is widely considered an icon of German post-war architecture.

Gerhard Kabierske

"Egon Eiermann 1904-1970. Architect and Designer", Ed. Annemarie Jaeggi, Hatje Cantz: Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p. 173

Project-specific information

Project Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church)
Persons involved
  • Egon Eiermann, Architektur
Project period 1956-1963

Object-specific information

Typology Sakralbau, religious buildings

Site-specific information

Country Deutschland
City Berlin