Pritzker Prize-winning German architect Gottfried Böhm dies at 101


Pritzker Prize-winning German architect Gottfried Böhm dies at 101

German architect and master church builder Gottfried Böhm pictured in 2015. (Elke Wetzig/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Gottfried Böhm, the son of a celebrated composer and designer of expressionist churches who went on to secure his own indelible and internationally recognized architectural legacy, died on June 9 at the age of 101. The cause of death has not been disclosed.

In 1986, Böhm became the first German architect to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize. To date, he is only one of two Germans to be named Pritzker laureates alongside the late Frei Otto, who died just days before his respective award was to be officially announced in March 2015.

As author and journalist Brendan Gill, serving as secretary to the 1986 Pritzker Prize jury, remarked in the announcement of Böhm’s win: “As little known in the United States as he is well-known in Europe, for forty years Böhm has succeeded in interpreting and transforming the architectural riches of past centuries into contemporary structures, thrilling in themselves.” The jury citation goes on to read:  “His highly evocative handiwork combines much that we have inherited from our ancestors with much that we have but newly acquired—an uncanny and exhilarating marriage, to which the Pritzker Architecture Prize is happy to pay honor.”

view of an angular concrete church with flowers in the foreground
Maria Königin des Friedens. (seier+seier/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

A trained sculptor who worked for—and later took over—the architectural practice established by his father, Dominikus Böhm in the 1950s, the younger Böhm’s artistic tutelage is strongly apparent in his completed works. Soaring, sculptural buildings executed in concrete, steel, and glass, Böhm’s embrace of concrete firmly placed him in the camp of post-Bauhaus European architects working—and rebuilding—in the Brutalist style. His father’s expressionist influence was a tangible one, particularly in his early works. Also, like his father, Böhm designed a considerable number of landmark Roman Catholic churches and religious edifices throughout Germany including, perhaps most famously, Maria, Königin des Friedens (Maria, Queen of Peace), a superlatively rangy and jagged pilgrimage church in Neviges, near Düsseldorf.

Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) the state-owned international media company that was among the first news outlets to share news of Böhm’s passing, described the angular concrete church in Neviges, which was consecrated in 1968, as seeming “to have been hewn out of the rock and built to last for eternity.”

“What looks so heavy from the outside yet appears almost weightless inside.”

a modern theater building with a red-petaled roof
The Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam. (Gitta Zahn/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

In addition to the church projects that largely dominated his early career and helped establish him as a household name in Germany (especially among the devout), other notable works of Böhm’s include a range of civic buildings and community centers as well as office blocks and housing complexes. Just a few of them include Bensberg Town Hall (1969), the Iglesia Youth Center Library in Cologne (1968), the Bethanien Children’s Village in Bergisch Gladbach-Refrath (1967), and, more recently the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, which was completed in 2006. “Gottfried Böhm aimed for a synthesis of art and architecture,” details a short tribute to Böhm on the theater’s website. “He was able to masterfully combine his architecture with the urban environment or with the landscape.”

view of a tall concrete building
Bernsberg Town Hall. (seier+seier/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Not only was Böhm’s father an established architect, but so was his paternal grandfather. And that familial legacy grew in bounds over the years. In 1948, just a few years before Böhm traveled to and worked briefly in the United States in the early 1950s where he met his compatriot-heroes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, he married Elisabeth Haggenmüller, who was also an architect and served as a key collaborator on many of her husband’s commissions. The couple had four sons: Stephan, Peter, Paul, and Markus. The first three Böhm sons—Stephan, Peter, and Paul—are also acclaimed architects. Markus is a painter. The elder Böhm collaborated with his progeny on some later projects, including on the theater in Potsdam, which was designed in collaboration with Paul.

In 2016, filmmaker Maurizius Staerkle-Drux released Concrete Love: The Böhm Familyan awarded-winning portrait of the Böhm family patriarch and his three architect sons. Per the jury of the Goethe-Institut Documentary Film Prize, Concrete Love “tells a multi-layered tale of love, the passion for architecture and four generations of German history. With sensitive observations, intimate interviews and stirring filmic explorations of an extraordinary architectural legacy, the film creates a lasting impression of the buildings and the people.”

Gottfried Böhm is preceded in death by his wife Elisabeth, who passed away in 2012.