Opposing Feelings – Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

by Chloé Migayrou

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The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was built between 1891 and 1895 in a neo- romanesque style as a souvenir of the victory against the French army in Sedan (1870). It was a very massive church that could welcome up to 2 000 people. In 1943, the church was largely destroyed in an air raid. Only a part of the spire and of the entrance remain. These ruins were supposed to be demolished, but Berlins inhabitants protested against it. So they had been incorporated into a new project composed of two buildings: an octogonal church and a hexagonal tower. The new church was constructed of steel and glass between 1959 and 1961 and is considered as a memorial againts war’s horror.

There are some interesting details that show the government’s willingness to promote this church as a memorial for peace. For example the glass desgined by the French Gabriel Loire was inspired by the colours of the glass in Chartres Cathedral. Inside the church we can find the Cross of Nails which was made from nails in the roof timbers of Coventry Cathedral which was severely damaged in a Nazi air raid. Next to it is the Stalingrad Madonna given by the Russian Orthodox Church as a symbol of hope and reconciliation between the three previous countries. But can we consider this project as a success?

Berliners are really good to find nicknames for buildings. These names often reflect their feelings. In this way, they found a name for each building of the project. The old building is named “The Hollow Tooth”. The bell tower is “The Lipstick”, and the church is called “Powder box”. These names show that Berliners are thinking that these buildings are somehow meaningless, as if the governement had tried to correct some things but the result is just superficial,  just a plaster to create a show-case for tourists. Indeed this project is located on one of the biggest places of Berlin, where people can find malls, restaurants, shops. But the ruin is surrounded and seems to be threatened by the massive new tower and on the other side by the octogonal church. The neo- romanesque church is then oppressed in the middle of a large place by this new constructions which seem to be the guards of the memorial. This organisation of the place leaves a very weird impression to the visitor.

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Furthermore if you want to go into the memorial there are two different feelings. First, when you enter the old church, you will be dazzled by the rest of mosaics showing important monarchs in medieval Germany. Its floor is covered by a mosaic of the Archangel Michael fighting the dragon. Bas-relief sculptures illustrate scenes from the life of Kaiser Wilhelm I and symbolic figures representing war and peace. The remaining entrance is furthemore very bright, and you can see the outside through the frame of the old stained-glass window. And on the left side, two stairs seem to show the way to paradise. Then apart from the small size of the room which is crowded by tourists, this part of the memorial – which is at the beginning a memorial for the victory against the French people – is quite appreciable. And on the other hand there is what we can call the new memorial, which is in the new church. This really is giving another feeling. First you have to go through an airlock, which is dark and then you are in the church. What is really impressive is the blue color that comes from the glass. And opposite to the entrance, a figure of Christ is suspended above the alatar. As it is an active church, the ambience is really quiet. But the atmosphere let me feel really uncomfortable. I had the feeling to float and to loose my bearings in this blue dark box dominated by this suspended icon.

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All photos by Gabriele Offenbroich

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