Post #8: Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany
Eric Tse
August 26, 2017

As noted in Post #7, the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Peter Zumthor is the most complete example of Gesamtkonzept I've personally experienced to date. It hits all the conceptual kernel flavours: formal, narrative, materiality, and tectonics.
It is a bit of a pilgrimage to get there, being in the middle of a field in Mechernich, Germany, however like most powerfully experiential architectural spaces, it is well worth the trip. The project is well documented across the internet and in books like Sacred Spaces: Contemporary Religious Architecture by James Pallister:
Saint Nicholas of Flue, or Bruder Klaus (Brother Klaus) as he is often affectionately called, is the patron saint of Switzerland, but this chapel dedicated to the extraordinary peasant is in the north of Germany, close to Cologne. Klaus lived in fifteenth-century Switzerland and served as a soldier, a farmer and judge, until a mystical dream warned him of the perils of putting his worldly fulfillment ahead of his spiritual calling, whereupon he decided to leave his wife and ten children to live a life of seclusion and fasting as a hermit. Klaus reportedly existing for nineteen years living on no food other than the Eucharist and was much sought after for his sage advice on matters political, spiritual and moral. As a peasant farmer and ancestral landowner who turned to a life of asceticism, he is a popular saint amount agriculturalists and many who work the land profess a close affinity with him.

Enter another much sought-after Swiss character imbued with mystical talents: the carpenters' son and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, who works from a small studio a few miles from the small Graubunden town of Chur. Zumthor became involved in the project when he heard the client, a Roman Catholic farming couple, were to build a chapel dedicated to Brother Klaus, agreeing to design it for a nominal fee – the Swiss architect was working at the time on the widely acclaimed Kolumba Art Museum on the site of a medieval church in nearby Cologne.

The Brother Klaus chapel stands alone in a field in Mechernich, a wine-growing district southwest of the German city. Appropriately, it cuts a lonely figure in the surrounding fields. From the outside it looks like a simple smooth-face concrete monolith. It has a peculiar shape: it is an irregular pentagon in plan, with most of its wall chamfered at oblique angles to each other. The chapel rise 12 metres (39 feet) from the ground. The concrete was set by the clients' friends and family using local sand and gravel in twenty-four pours, which can be read in the horizontal banding around the chapel. A triangular steel door, above which a simple cross is notched into the concrete, opens a very different space to the smooth concrete exterior. Such was his asceticism,, Brother Klaus purportedly made a cave his home, and Zumthor's chapel invokes this history. Inside a tight corridor of rough, blacked walls open up to a small chamber which slopes inwards towards a tear-shaped unglazed hole in the roof. This, together with the glass beads embedded in the concrete banding, is the only source of natural light. The floor is made from cast lead. Rain from the openings above gathers in a small basin, sunk into the floor. When this overflows it empties through a simple channel cut into the floor.

The striking interior was created by building a sort of wigwam made from 112 slim tree trunk acting as the concrete formwork. Once the concrete was set, the trees set alight to burn away, then the charred remains removed, leaving the dramatic effect of the coarse and wax blackened surfaces. Like Zumthor's celebrated thermal baths at Vals, the mix of rough sensuous materials creates dramatic and sometimes raw space, here used to take the visitor back to the life of a fifteenth century hermit who chose to give up his prosperous family life in favour of a existence of hunger and exposure to the elements, all for the sake of spiritual clarity.
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