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A family history made of concrete

An intimate portrait of 95-year-old Brutalist architect Gottfried Böhm and his remarkable family

by David D'Arcy  |  18 June 2015
A family history made of concrete
Böhm’s craggy, Brutalist Neviges Pilgrimage Church (1968). Photo: © Lichtblick Film
The much-quoted architect Philip Johnson, who died aged 98 in 2005, liked to say that architecture begins at 60. Gottfried Böhm, who has worked for more than three decades since that age, is living proof of Johnson’s dictum. Now 95, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect still draws in pencil, erasing with a razor blade, eschewing the computer that is now the instrument of architectural drafting. 

In the tender and intimate documentary Concrete Love (the Böhms, a Family Architecture), the Swiss film-maker Maurizius Staerkle-Drux observes how architecture shaped and shapes three generations of Böhms.

The house that Dominikus built

The son of an architect (and the father of three more), Böhm began his studies during the Second World War, after battle wounds ended his days as a Wehrmacht sniper.

The young Böhm had wanted to be a sculptor. His father, Dominikus, who is seen in the film’s extensive archival footage, channelled that calling into the family business. The young boy was given construction tasks from an early age; he would give similar household jobs to his sons. Today, Gottfried and three of his sons work in the house in Cologne that Dominikus built in the 1920s. Water from the house’s swimming pool was used to put out fires during Allied bombing of the city.  

Concrete Love opens with the Böhm family in Cologne in 2006. Elisabeth, sinking into dementia as she spends her days in the firm’s offices, calls her husband a “fucking liberal” and describes his drawings for a bowl-shaped theatre in Potsdam with a cantilevered red roof as “a pot”. (Elisabeth also trained as an architect, but the needs of a young husband and family limited those dreams.) 

Böhm’s designs had been called worse than that, as his work incorporated dreamy elements that were out of step with Germany’s feverish utilitarian rebuilding after 1945. Yet the architect managed to connect with patrons, who were drawn to his imagination.

A blind cardinal approved the plan for Böhm’s craggy, Brutalist Neviges Pilgrimage Church (1968) in the Ruhr Valley after feeling a mountain-shaped model of the building with his hands. Böhm’s sculpting skills won over that crucial client, although the architect tells of being on the losing end of 25 commissions in a row and nearly going bankrupt at one point in his career.

When Böhm was able to build, his projects were often churches and public structures. His Bensberg City Hall (1969) brings a wavy lyricism reminiscent of Antonio Gaudí to Brutalist construction in concrete. “Imagine wanting to do a tower like that now,” he thinks out loud in the documentary. “They’d say, ‘He’s crazy.’”

Making beauty from despair

Böhm’s first commission was to rebuild a church in Cologne, destroyed during the Second World War save for a statue of the Madonna and Child. “There was something beautiful in all that misery,” he says. “All those heaps of rubble bloomed wonderfully. It was kind of like a mountain world. It fascinated me.” 

Concrete Love is filled with those poignant memories, intercut with shots of Böhm’s buildings and 8mm home movies. Together, they give the film the feel of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which random encounters trigger recollections of an old man’s youth.

There is also an atmosphere that echoes Chekhov in Dominikus Böhm’s house, where his sons reflect both admiringly and gloomily on their family, and on the ups and downs of architecture as a vocation.

Gottfried Böhm swims every day and plays ping-pong with his elder brother Paul, a doctor. Gunther Keintoch, a former architect who has worked for the family for more than 50 years, helps in the garden.

This heartfelt family portrait is also hard-headed. Son Stephan, once hopeful about working in China, finds himself being treated like a “service person” there, as old buildings are demolished around him. All three sons are struggling for commissions, eager in their sixties to establish themselves as autonomous from their father.   

“The third generation has a much harder time gaining acceptance than if we didn’t have predecessors,” Stephan says. “The first one builds it up. The second maintains it. The third one destroys it.”

• Concrete Love (a German-language film), directed by Maurizius Staerkle-Drux, is due
to be released on DVD in spring 2016

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