What constitutes a church today? How do Catholic congregations want to celebrate mass? And how can they do it in a milestone of modern architecture?
In the 1950s, architect Paul Schneider-Esleben created one of the most extraordinary church buildings of modern times with his design for Düsseldorf’s St. Rocco’s Church. In its three segments, each comprising a flat, circular section and a parabola-like domed shell, revolve about a central point. Unfortunately, architect and client quarrelled shortly before its completion and the interior of the church was finished without the involvement of Schneider-Esleben. Despite several attempts at remodelling in the interim it has never provided a satisfactory setting for worship.
Our approach abandons the eastern orientation of the interior in favour of a rotationally symmetrical arrangement of chairs and pulpit locations in which the altar occupies the centre of the space. The lack of fixed points to guide orientation and the reversed curves of the rows of chairs heighten the feeling that the space is in constant movement.
The room is cleared of all additional clutter. This reinforces the overpowering impression of space, which is created primarily by its highly complex geometry. The seating is movable but the altar and pulpits are fixed, helping the congregation make sense of the space.
This is what the dome looked like when an angry Schneider-Esleben abandoned the project during the construction of the shell. Since then, rather than the sound-control plaster planned by the architect, it has received nothing more than a coat of paint. As a result, the acoustics remain unsympathetic to the spoken word to this day.
For us, the solution to the problem of improving the building’s acoustics without modifying the existing structure lay in the treatment of the shell, in making alterations to its surfaces to enhance its form. At the same time, barely perceptible corrections to the ingress of natural light and the use of artificial light increase the impact of the space as a place of contemplation.
The congregation’s participation in services will be extended to include setting out the seating before a service. To increase the visual effect of the space, the chairs will be kept around the edge of the curved shell outside services and only brought into the centre for mass, when the whole congregation gathers below the dome.
It will then be possible to hold services without chairs – as here for the children from the surrounding schools, for example.