What makes the architecture of the church so sacred


Alvar Aalto's churches for Wolfsburg

The great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed a total of six buildings for Germany after the Second World War: apartment buildings in Berlin (1957) and Bremen (1962), the Essen Opera House (designed in 1959, completed in 1988), a cultural center (1962) and for the automobile city of Wolfsburg two community centers. The Holy Spirit Church, completed in 1962, and the Stephanus Church, consecrated in 1968, are today among the outstanding architectural examples of international modernism in Germany. Together with Hans Scharoun's theater, Aalto's buildings represent world architecture in Wolfsburg. Nevertheless, the two churches, which have long been a listed building, received comparatively little attention in the lively debate about modern sacred buildings in the post-war period. In comparison with the other places of worship in the city, they reveal an idiosyncratic and, in some cases, radical view of the liturgical space, which Alvar Aalto, at the height of his fame at the time, had adopted very early on in relation to this old and traditional building project.

Aalto as a church builder

When Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) worked in Wolfsburg, he was, alongside Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a globally recognized and benchmark symbol of international modernism. In contrast to these architects, however, church building played an important role in the Finns' work from the very beginning. His catalog raisonné lists a total of 37 sacred building projects, including 22 churches, 4 designs for cemetery facilities and chapels, and even a mosque. In addition, there were restoration and furnishing projects for historic churches, drafts for rectories and tombs. Seven churches - six for Protestant parishes and one Catholic church - were built, four of which were in Finland, one in Italy and two in Germany. The first church building in Muurame (1926-1929) shows Aalto still as a historically creative neoclassicist with a strong passion for Italy. However, his competition entries from the decade before the Second World War show how decidedly he turned to the anti-historical architectural vocabulary of functionalism when designing churches. As with many architects of those years, this change in style was less a development than a decision. With the church "To the three crosses" in Vuoksenniska near Imatra (1956-58) in southeastern Finland, Aalto first received international attention as a church architect. Shortly thereafter, the churches in Seinäjoki, central Finland (1958-60) and Wolfsburg (Heilig-Geist 1959-62, Stephanus 1965-68), finally the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta in Riola near Bologna (project 1966-68, completed 1978) and the Kreuzkirche in Lahti in southern Finland (project 1970, completed 1979), both of which could only be completed after Aalto's death.
The shape of the church in Vuoksenniska and the Wolfsburg Heilig-Geist-Kirche are the most spectacular sacred buildings in Aalto. The Holy Spirit Church, which the Wolfsburg-based photographer Heinrich Heidersberger photographed immediately after its completion in masterful shots with a train into the Grandiose, is without a doubt one of Aalto's best works of all. Both churches show that Aalto as an architect was not a purposeful thinker, but a free creative artist, who, as is well known, also left behind a remarkable sculptural and painterly work that is intertwined with his building work in many ways. The less extravagant and stricter architecture of St. Stephen's Church also has quality that testify to Aalto's unique status as a creator of modern sacred architecture with a message that is still current today.

On the history of the parishes
Holy Spirit and Stephen

The oldest churches in Wolfsburg are the late Roman-early Gothic St. Anne's Church in the Hesslingen district (built around 1200) and the St. Mary's Church in Alt-Wolfsburg near the Renaissance castle in the north of the city in the north of the city, as a chapel for the first time 136 mentioned, a building from the 2nd half of the 17th century, which was redesigned in a classicist style in 1825. Heilig Geist and Stephanus congregations, both in the south of Wolfsburg, have a common history. Holy Spirit is the mother church of the Stephen church. Until 1964 the districts of Detmerode and Rabenberg belonged to Heilig-Geist. In the course of the completion of the Detmerode development area, the Stephanus community emerged as an independent community from the Heilig-Geist-Gemeinde.
In 1938 the "City of the KdF-Wagens" (which has only had the name Wolfsburg since 1945) was founded in a convenient location on the Mittelland Canal and the new east-west car and railroad. In the first development plan by Albert Speer and Peter Koller, who also emerged as church builders after 1945, the National Socialist planners - in contrast to the neighboring town of Salzgitter - at least identified building sites for churches. However, not a single one was built before 1945. In connection with the growth of the Volkswagen plant after the war, there was an enormous increase in population in the years of the "economic miracle". In barely two decades, 10 new churches were built in the city. Today, like the gigantic automobile plant and the large cultural buildings, they are one of the striking features of the cityscape.
Up until December 31, 1960, there was only one large Protestant congregation in the urban area, which maintained several churches. The Christ Church, built by Gerhard Langmaack in the city center from 1950 to 1952, was the first new church in Lower Saxony after the war. In 1954, the city issued a building statute for the residential areas of Klieversberg Süd and Eichelkamp. The first residential buildings were completed in 1957, and by 1960 the new district was almost complete and occupied. All that was missing now was a church center. On January 1, 1661, the entire Protestant community of Wolfsburg was divided into seven independent parishes. The building of the new parish of the Holy Spirit was in the hands of the pastor Egon Meyer, who worked in Wolfsburg since 1958 and accompanied the construction of the new community center.
The church services of the new congregation initially took place in the Christ Church. For this purpose, a shuttle bus was available for the Sunday service. Later, the service could take place in a classroom of the completed forest school in the Eichelkamp district. At that time the districts of Rabenberg and Detmerode still belonged to the municipality of Heilig-Geist. At the time the church was rebuilt, the Heilig-Geist-Gemeinde had around 3000 members with a total population of 4000 in the district, today there are 1400.
The connection to the world-famous architect was a rather casual one. The idea to award the building to Aalto and important conceptual specifications for the interior design came from Pastor Erich Bammel, the chairman of the church council of the whole congregation. With essential basic ideas he explicitly referred to Otto Bartning, the most influential theoretician of modern Protestant church building in the middle of the century. After the parishes had become independent on January 1, 1961, the responsibility of the Holy Spirit community and thus for the construction of the community center was transferred to the church council of the Holy Spirit community.
The Heilig-Geist community center was built at the same time as the cultural center in the city center, for which Aalto won the competition in 1958. In this way the community achieved a considerable reduction in costs; in addition, Aalto met him with a modest fee claim. The regional church had decreed that the contract could only be awarded to the Finns under the condition that the costs would not be higher than the commissioning of a German architect.
Aalto had to plan a church with 300 seats, 100 additional seats and a large choir gallery including the associated community buildings. The municipality finally gave him the contract on November 5, 1958. The implementation plans were ready in 1960, and the groundbreaking ceremony took place on June 18, 1961. The foundation stone was laid on August 12, the topping-out ceremony followed on October 16. The parish hall was ready for Easter in 1962, and a first service could be celebrated in the parish hall. The construction management for the Holy Spirit Church - later also for the Stephanus Church - was in the hands of the Wolfsburg architect Dipl. Ing. Ernst Korritter. After almost a year of construction, the church was consecrated on June 6, 1962. The kindergarten, also designed by Aalto, opened about two years later on October 19, 1964. Today, after almost four decades, the Aaltos are building all sorts of renovation problems. An extensive repair of the concrete bell tower of the Heilig-Geist-Kirche was carried out in 1999 with careful consideration of criteria for the preservation of historical monuments while maintaining the appearance intended by the architect.
Essential for the success of both church building projects was the key role of the client, who, with clear conceptual ideas and resolute quality standards, took advantage of the moment to win over one of the most important architects of the century. Even during the planning of the Heilig-Geist-Gemeindezentrum it was clear to those in charge of the Hanover regional church that here - according to Prof. Dr. Ernst Witt, the former head of the church building authority - "a classic building of modern architecture" would arise.
When the construction of the Detmerode district began, there was also the need to build a church community center. As the mother congregation of Stephen, the Holy Spirit congregation also transferred this planning to Alvar Aalto. The Stephanus congregation, founded in 1964, then took the project into its own hands. Aalto used this opportunity to once again realize his clearly contoured ideal of the church in Wolfsburg - and yet to do a lot of things very differently.

The Stephanus Community Center in Detmerode

The parish of the Stephanusgemeinde, which today counts 4200 parishioners, belonged to the Holy Spirit until 1964. When the construction of the Detmerode district, a new housing estate with approx. 5000 apartments in the south of Wolfsburg, began at the beginning of the 1960s, an own community center proved necessary. The shopping center was planned as the location in the urban planning concept by the architect Paul Baumgarten. the approval that Aalto's building had found in the mother parish prompted the new parish to entrust the building of the church to the Finns as well. In 1962, Aalto delivered a first preliminary design, and on February 28, 1964, he was finally entrusted with the construction of the new community center. A church was to be built with 250 permanent seats, which could be expanded to 600 on special occasions. In addition, a community center with extensive functional and living spaces was to be built.
Construction began on August 5, 1964 with extensive field work and the filling of the ground by 4 m. The first groundbreaking for the new church therefore did not take place until September 19, 1965, the laying of the foundation stone took place on April 20, 1966, and the topping-out ceremony was already possible to be celebrated on August 19th. Then, however, there was an interruption in construction due to a severe recession. The construction site was idle until February 1967. It was not until October 29, 1967 that the completed parish hall could be occupied and a first service was celebrated in the shell of the church. However, construction work on the church did not resume until late summer 1968. The inauguration of the new church therefore took place on the 1st of Advent 1968 after an unusually long construction period of more than four years.
The west wing of the community center with parish apartments planned in the construction program was not implemented. To this day, the tower has not been completed either, it still lacks the bells and the lamellar wooden cladding of the bell house.
In 1992/93 the church tower was renovated and in 1998 the damaged marble facade was renewed. The fact that important details of the Stephanus Congregation Center are still waiting to be completed has certainly contributed to the fact that it has not received the attention it deserves among the sacred buildings of Aalto.
By the way, a second world-class architect, who is also Aalto's architectural relatives, created the kindergarten of the Stephanus community on Robert-Schuman-Straße. The building, erected according to a design by Hans Scharoun between 1967 and 1970, is the only example of this type of building that the architect, who is famous as a designer for schools, was able to build.

Exterior and urban situation

The Stephanus Church is visible from afar on a small hill in the middle of urban life on the market square west of the shopping bridge and above the busy main road in the district. Even if the church cannot compete with the surrounding skyscrapers in terms of dimensions, the unusual tower and the white-gloss marble front of the nave appear as urban dominants from a distance.
Two shopping streets converging at right angles meet on the small square market square, the northern edge of which forms the wide, windowless entrance front of the church. This is clad with gleaming white Carrara marble, a material that is highly valued by the Nordic Aalto and is even widely used in Finland. Colonnade-like arcades in front of the flat-roofed shops and residential buildings surround the square. A cantilever roof supported by thin round pillars is also in front of the church. The result is an almost classic urban space formation: an urban square as a space closed on all sides without a roof, with a church building that is tightly integrated into the other functions of everyday life. While the Heilig-Geist-Kirche, located in a garden-urban environment, maintains a distance from the surrounding area due to its unusual design, the Stephanus-Kirche seeks closest connection to the neighboring buildings and turns out to be very urban architecture. It is therefore one of the few buildings in Aalto that has a clearly emphasized main facade. Their effect is based on the confrontation of a closed building mass with the massless skeleton structure of the tower. This consists of nine thin concrete masts (originally Aalto had planned 12) and is actually just a filigree bell stand. To this day it is unfinished and has no function; Not only are the bells missing, but also the semitransparent enclosure of the belfry with vertical wooden slats, which Aalto intended.
While the curvy architecture of the Heilig-Geist-Kirche with its lively forms appears organic and dynamic, the shape of the Stephanus-Kirche is sharp-edged and crystalline. It thus corresponds to the stylistic tendency of Aalto's late work, whose architectural language in some respects turns back to the functionalism of the 1930s. The geometric hardening corresponds to an increased coolness of the material effect, which here is based on white marble and whitewashed limestone.
From the north-west, the church and the community center with hall, offices, library, club room and kitchen as well as group rooms, sacristy and baptistery in the basement offer a much more lively and fragmented picture. Here the structures are staggered asymmetrically up the slope. The church roof rises from the arrangement of nested and often staggered cubes, absorbing the ascent of the slope. The tower acts as the crowning glory of the assembly. Aalto has the reserved and calm expression that the monumental market front contrasts with the hustle and bustle in the shopping center with the lively and irregularly designed garden side of the community center.

The interior

There is no quiet church forecourt like in Heilig-Geist in Detmerode. You enter the Stephanus Church on weekdays through the spacious foyer of the parish hall, on Sundays and public holidays through the broad south portal in the middle of the market front. From the public space, the worshipers get directly into a bright, high interior that does not appear particularly "sacred" in the usual sense. Like the Heilig-Geist-Kirche, the space, which is built on a trapezoidal floor plan, appears wide, but quite short. Altar, pulpit and organ are also united here in the constellation typical of Aalto in the field of vision of the congregation and come very close to the worshiper.
The pulpit has its own space compartment according to its worship service significance. Behind her, the room is polygonally wrapped like a small choir, so that the wall catches the pulpit like a cupped hand as a sound-reflecting surface.
Circular, wooden sound reflectors are hung from the ceiling, which rises slightly from the altar area. These wooden shades appear to be floating. They are the most striking element of the room, hardly less unusual than the spectacular ceiling shape in Heilig-Geist. In this church space, acoustics are virtually visible through the reflectors, in accordance with the importance of the spoken word in Protestant worship. In place of the traditional wooden coffered ceiling, Aalto stated that he was using an emphatically modern shape that was able to guarantee good acoustics in the same way. At the same time there is a protective gesture in the umbrella shape of the reflectors.
The reduced coloring is again important for the impression of the room.The unbroken white enhances the optical warmth of the brick-red floor and the wood tone of the ceiling reflectors. The lamps with their sparse golden brass reflections add important glitter accents. At first glance, however, the room looks extremely cool, almost too matter-of-fact. The shape of the room also appears static in comparison with the Church of the Holy Spirit. The ceiling reflectors, which are more familiar from lecture halls and concert halls than from churches, also contribute to the mundane character. In fact, in no other church room has Aalto carried the objectification, even profanation, of the room atmosphere as far as here.
The spatial zones are lit differently. But here, too, there are only differences between light and very light. However, if you look at it for a long time, it becomes clear that Aalto has set captivatingly beautiful light accents in the area of ​​the altar. Only there are those curved movements that dominate the whole space in the Holy Spirit. To the right and left of the altar table, the front wall folds in gentle curves - like a curtain into which a gust of wind drifts from behind. Towards the ceiling, the wall seems to fall forward - a textile effect, inconspicuous, but extremely effective in contrast to the hard geometry of the rest of the room. Bright grazing light falls on the altar wall through the large bay on the left and lets the three-dimensional formations stand out nicely. The fact that the crystalline spatial lines experience such a vitalization exclusively in the area of ​​the altar and are brought to melt together by light, underlines the spiritual importance of this spatial zone.
When designing the Stephanus Church, Aalto intended to integrate the secular and sacred atmosphere with greater radicalism than with the Holy Spirit Church, which, as an expressive architectural sculpture, claims a certain exceptional character of sacred building for itself. The comparatively neutral architecture of St. Stephen's Church, on the other hand, also proves to be open for purposes of community life that go beyond the use of worship in the narrower sense. The characteristic of Aalto matter-of-fact festivity constitutes the specific value of this space creation.


In contrast to the case of the Holy Spirit Church, the furnishings in the Stephanus Church were not entirely designed by Aalto. This was inevitable as a result of a foreign contract, the execution of which made the constant presence of the architect difficult. In particular, the altar cross and organ are space-defining elements that, as ingredients from later times, do not go back to Aalto's ideas in the realized form. While the pulpit is designed similar to that in Heilig-Geist, Aalto chose the functional shape of the table for the altar. The simple communion table gains its unobtrusive monumentality from the noble material (Carrara marble). In the choir of the church there has been a hanging from the Wolfsburg sculptor since Good Friday 1974 Jochen Kramer (1935-1988) created cross, which is executed as a mobile in metal. Its moving parts, which are suspended in a cross-shaped grid, have multiple openings. Depending on the incidence of light and the constellation of the individual elements, different reflections and shadows are created on the altar wall.
Because of the sloping building site, the space under the church offered itself as a baptistery. The baptismal font stands under the chancel, which can be reached via a wide staircase in the foyer of the community center. In contrast to the church, the only moderately lighted room has a decidedly contemplative atmosphere, which Aalto naturally also knew how to create. A window covered with thick wooden slats lets subdued scattered light into the crypt-like room, the center of which is the marble baptismal font.

The organ

The organ comes from the traditional workshop Hermann Owl in Bautzen (Saxony). The company, founded in 1872, also delivered numerous organs to West German churches during the GDR era. The instrument was built in two construction phases (1970/1975) and has slider drawers with a mechanical play and stop action. The disposition with 20 registers is, in accordance with the musical taste of the time, based on models of rock organ building. In contrast to the Flentrop organ in Heilig-Geist, the owl organ lets you hear a strong basic voice structure with a more grave sound. The design of the organ case with asymmetrically offset boxes, which clearly show the structure of the work, comes from the master organ builder Hermann Eule and was selected by Aalto from several variants presented. The case therefore does not show the typical features of Aalto's organ prospectuses, as they were intended in the implementation plans for the Stephanus Church


(Text from the church guide "Heilig-Geist-Kirche and Stephanus-Kirche Wolfsburg" by Holger Brülls. Available in the parish office.)