Remembrance After Destruction – Chapel of Reconciliation

by Pak Ching Wai Christie

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Berlin has experienced so much that no matter how you do not think about, the city pushes you to do so. Because of its history, painful and contemplating. Walking along Bernauer Strasse after going to Mauer Park flea market on Sunday, I discover I was in Berlin Wall Memorial all of a sudden. This street used to be part of the border when the division of Berlin took place and now it is chosen to be a place where people can learn about this part of Germany’s history. When I entered Section B of the memorial, I saw a round structure before a field of rye. Getting closer, I found it was made of wood strips, with a pair of steel black gates and a cross on the surface, surrounding a concrete object inside. That is the Chapel of Reconciliation (Kapelle der Versöhnung).

I was so curious that I walked around it to peek through its strips, I pushed the heavy gates but it was locked. At the moment I couldn’t help associating this chapel with a prison. The woods were like bars, its dark colour and its gate generated seriousness and severity. What is inside this cage-like chapel?

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I revisited this chapel after I found out that prayer services are held from Tuesday to Friday at noon, for the victims who sacrificed because of the Berlin Wall. The gate was open, I walked in. And it was beautiful. The beige colour of the clay wall, the wood ceiling, the wood strips viewed from inside produced a calm and warm atmosphere which was so different from what I felt from the outside. The sunlight “penetrated” the building through its strips that the beauty of it connected with nature, it was fascinating.

Martin Rauch was one of the architects behind this and he was responsible for the clay part.[1] The clay was in fact a mixture of rammed earth and rubbles from a former religious building at the exact site on which now Chapel of Reconciliation stands: Church of Reconciliation. It was built in 1894, and unlike most of the structures in Berlin, it survived World War II. Unfortunately, the GDR government, “to increase the security, order and cleanliness on the state border with West Berlin” [2], tore it down in 1985. After the Berlin Wall fell, a new chapel was constructed during 1999-2000 in order to commemorate the victims. The chapel now contains materials from the past, symbolizing remembrance. It is the first rammed earth structure in Berlin and was made of 390 tonnes of soil. [2]

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The rawness impressed me. Instead of traditionally constructing it with concrete and iron, the architect chose to do it with soil. When the prayer service almost started, I moved on to the room. Wooden chairs for visitors were around the edge, stick to the clay wall. An altar, a metal bowl were placed at the centre. On the wall next to the setting, an old altar top was decorated, which belonged to the demolished church. With all these elements from the past, one can sense till today how deeply Berlin and Berliners are influenced by their history. The architecture is reminding everyone of how vulnerable life is and how tragedy in the past it was taken away from us. Sunlight from an opening in the ceiling was the only light source in the room. Wood, soil, sunshine, they combined in this chapel and gave visitors tranquillity and peace.

After the prayer, all visitors left the chapel. Some of them were teenagers who probably participated because of school activities; some were travellers who did not understand German prayer, like me; some were locals who prayed sincerely with the lady at the altar. Sunshine is nothing special outdoor, the soil I was stepping on is what I walk on every day. Inside the chapel, however, these are the fundamental ingredients which resonate with contemplation about mankind and remembrance of victims. Personally, this is one of the most amazing architectures I have been to in Berlin.

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[1] Uffelen, C. V. (2003).Berlin: Architecture & design. Düsseldorf, Germany: TeNeues.

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