Gottfried Böhm, who has died aged 101, was Germany’s pre-eminent postwar architect, his work, most of it to be found in the Rhineland area of Germany, principally around his home town of Cologne, being highly original, inventive, innovative and sculptural.© Provided by The Telegraph Gottfried Böhm in 2015
Owing perhaps to Böhm’s lack of self-promotion, his work is less well-known in English-speaking countries than it should be, but in 1981 Peter Davey wrote in the Architectural Review: “When the history of architecture is written properly, the Wallfahrtskirche [Pilgrimage Church at Neviges, near Wuppertal, 1968] will surely be recognised as one of the really outstanding spatial achievements of the twentieth century.”
Maria, Königin des Friedens (Mary, Queen of Peace), an astonishing creation and Böhm’s best known work, consists of a huge church with a tent-like roof in concrete, approached by a processional way rising between lower ranges of building.
Cardinal Josef Frings commissioned it, after the reform-minded Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, chiefly by the feel of the model, since he was almost blind. Sadly, the age of pilgrimage was drawing to an end almost as soon as it was completed.© Provided by The Telegraph Maria, Königin des Friedens, the pilgrimage church at Neviges in Velbert, North Rhine-Westphalia, commissioned by Cardinal Josef Frings after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and consecrated in 1968 - Sabine Thielemann/Alamy
At a time when the main trend of architecture in Germany was towards rationalist restraint, this extravagant church resembled a vast craggy rockface, and many of Böhm’s works up to this time seemed like throwbacks to the brief Expressionist period after the First World War, realising at last the dreams of an earlier generation with the improved technical means available after the Second World War.
The architectural historian Wolfgang Pehnt commented of Böhm: “Taciturn and inward-looking, he likes to indulge his preference for things that are decorative, festive and lavish, and in it moves away from the frugal architecture his father designed in the late twenties.”
This was a reference to Dominikus Böhm, the leading German Catholic church architect of the interwar period up to his death in 1955. Gottfried, the youngest of his three sons with his wife Maria (née Scheiber), was born on January 23 1920 in Offenbach-am-Main, near Frankfurt. Both his father and his grandfather were architects.© Provided by The Telegraph The church at Neviges, Mary Queen of Peace - Alamy
Gottfried Böhm was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1939, and after being wounded in 1942 studied Architecture at the Technical University in Munich, graduating in 1946. After a year learning sculpture at Munich’s Academy of Arts he worked in Cologne with his father.
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Starting with the Chapel of St Columba in Cologne, where he extended the bombed remains of an ancient site of worship, Böhm followed his father in specialising in churches, each one distinctive in character, often playful, as in the Herz Jesu at Bergisch Gladbach Schildgen (1957-60), with its cluster of sugarloaf turrets.
In the same town he designed the town hall, wrapping it around a public space and including a jagged tower to match those of the medieval ruins incorporated on the site.
Böhm’s architecture changed and developed through the decades. The great church building period ended soon after Neviges, and many different kinds of secular buildings took its place, where the festive quality was most often found in his imaginative incorporation of public passageways, light-filled atria and the grouping of buildings to enclose quiet outdoor spaces. Böhm often worked close to older buildings, and without imitating them directly chose forms that complemented them in unexpected ways.© Provided by The Telegraph Nordrhein-Westfalen, Bergisch-Gladbach, the Bensberg town hall - Alamy
He was never a dogmatic modernist, and designed housing with individual steep gables at Cologne-Porz-Zündorf (1973-86), and elsewhere. For the town hall and cultural centre at Bocholt during the same years, however, he preferred a sober grid of columns and long horizontal sunscreens.
Working at part of a team in Wilmersdorf, Berlin, as part of the International Building Exhibition in the 1980s, Böhm conformed to the revival of traditional urban forms that this project celebrated, designing a modern equivalent of the turreted apartment blocks formerly on the circular Prager Platz, with courtyards behind.
Moving into the 1990s, Böhm’s Deutsche Bank administration building in Luxemburg still manages to lift the spirits with “floodlights on the pillar caps, perched like swallows on telegraph poles” in Pehnt’s words. Inside, curved stairs rise beneath a spectacular glass dome in the atrium.
This scheme was developed in tandem with a number of projects to restore the lost dome in altered form to the Reichstag building in Berlin, with a proposal that the chamber should sit in the glazed space. Having thus anticipated the reunification of Germany by several years, Böhm entered the 1993 competition, but Norman Foster’s similar proposal was chosen.© Provided by The Telegraph The Hans Otto Theatre in Potsdam, completed in 2006 - Alamy
In 1986 Böhm was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, the citation stating: “As little known in the United States as he is well-known in Europe, for 40 years Böhm has succeeded in interpreting and transforming the architectural riches of past centuries into contemporary structures, thrilling in themselves.”
His reputation in Britain did not, however, match that attributed to him in these words. Although an exhibition, “Der Architekt Gottfried Böhm: original drawings”, was held at the RIBA in Portland Place in 1987, and he was elected an honorary fellow of RIBA in 1991, few English language publications have covered his projects, and Peter Davey’s call for a “properly written” history, which implies a more pluralistic one, is just only beginning to be fulfilled.
A documentary film, Concrete Love (2014), showed Böhm and his architect wife, Elisabeth Haggenmüller (who died in 2012), at home in the suburbs of Cologne, living in the house built by Dominikus Böhm in 1932, with their four sons who survive him, three of them being architects.
Gottfried Böhm, born January 23 1920, died June 9 2021
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