Église Saint Nicolas

Church, Walter Maria Förderer, Hérémence, Canton of Valais, 1967-1971
Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

The church of Saint Nicolas in the mountain village of Hérémence in the Valais is the Matterhorn of Swiss Brutalism. The imposing primary rock is a revelation not only for disciples of exposed concrete. A pilgrimage.

Ugly, grey, massive, bulky, sinister: yes, the Swiss mountains had a miserable reputation for centuries. Until Rousseau, Goethe, Byron, Schiller, Rossini and a handful of other top stars of the Enlightenment and Romanticism rediscovered the Helvetic screes. In the salons of the European capitals, the aristocracy fell prey to the rapturous longing for the simple life of the mountain people and set out to explore the sublime beauty of the Alps. Eventually, even in Switzerland, people no longer had granite boulders, horror and danger in front of their eyes, but sunsets, lakes and bubbling sources of money. Since then, we too have come to like the mountains.

The rugged mountain wilderness does not immediately spring to mind as the ideal habitat for post-war concrete architecture. And yet the similarities are obvious: with their jagged and brute appearance, the brutalist solitaires until recently sparked similar fears and hostile reactions as the mountains once did before Goethe et al came along. Thanks to their photogenic quality and aesthetics of simplicity and authenticity, however, the primitive rocks of modernism are conquering the hearts, or rather the Instagram accounts, of a growing fan base from all over the world.

Eglise Saint Nicolas, Hérémence © Karin Bürki, Heartbrut.com. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Total work of art meets multi-purpose building

Saint Nicolas church in the Valais mountain village of Hérémence in the Eringer Valley is proof that concrete and mountains can go very well together indeed. Inaugurated on 31 October 1971, the 17-metre-high complex extends over several plateaus and, with its kinks, numerous openings, nooks and crannies, looks as if it has been hewn directly out of the steep slope. The concrete church is considered the undisputed Matterhorn of Swiss Brutalism.

Its history begins with a catastrophe. An earthquake had destroyed the old church in 1946. The municipality announced a competition for a replacement building. The jury decided in favour of Walter Maria Förderer’s project. The sculptor and architect based in Basel had made a name for himself internationally with a bunch sensational, expressive designs in exposed concrete and was considered a luminary of sacral brutalism. Those who commissioned Förderer were not into profane churches, but expected nothing short of the modern trinity of an unconditional profession of faith, a total work of art and a pragmatic multi-purpose building.

Besides, people in Hérémence were already familiar with concrete and monumental structures. At the end of the valley, the Grande Dixence had been built between 1951 and 1961. At 285 m high, the gravity dam is still the highest in the world. The local construction industry had amassed a wealth of know-how. There was still plenty of rubble lying around in the quarry above the reservoir. The water rent was gushing good money into the valley. Far from triggering fears, concrete promised economic prosperity.

Eglise Saint Nicolas, Hérémence © Karin Bürki, Heartbrut.com, 2021. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

“One cannot help but sink to one’s knees”

The ascent to the sacral icon begins rather secularly. The plinth structure on Rue Principale integrates a bar, village shop, post office counter and public toilet. Weather-beaten chalets line the narrow street. A flight of concrete stairs leads up to the central plateau. It is a barren and exposed square. In the middle, a fountain made of interlocking concrete blocks, complete with pink geranium arrangement, gurgles. The draughty esplanade also serves as a passage to the school, sports hall and municipal administration, also built in exposed concrete. Before entering the main, but slightly hidden entrance to the church, it is worth taking a little rest, because you are about to be blown away.

For the monumental interior is a revelation, even for the hard-boiled and faithless. The vast, grotto-like, hexagonal space could potentially fit in 1000 people. Expressionist concrete structures immediately enthrall the eyes. Indirect light that falls through strategically placed openings in the jagged ceiling, adds further thrills and chills. The liturgical elements are made of wood and live the open and inclusive spirit of Vatican II, held in 1962-1965. Along the walls and ceiling, wooden frames absorb the noise and house paintings from the old church. One cannot help but sink to one’s knees, such is the architectural force of the total work of art. No miracles were needed for Förderer’s masterpiece to be swiftly awarded national heritage status.

Eglise Saint Nicolas, Hérémence © Karin Bürki, Heartbrut.com. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Eglise Saint Nicolas, Hérémence © Karin Bürki, Heartbrut.com, 2021. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

The concrete heart and soul of the village

But the journey is not over yet. External stairs lead to the Rue d’Église, where both the post bus stop and the access to the church tower are located. Here, Förderer shows his pragmatist and service-orientated side to best effect. The tower not only houses a library but, at the very top, features a viewing platform. It offers a magnificent panoramic view of the village, the white earth pyramids of Euseigne on the other side of the valley, the snow-covered Dent Blanche and other high-alpine peaks.

Aged 50, Saint Nicolas church is in its prime. Apart from the roof, which has undergone renovation, and the stairs, which are not very well-suited to winter salting, the sturdy mountain concrete structure is not in need of any cosmetic work. Quite the opposite. Perfectly embedded in the terrain, the multifunctional sacred complex remains ahead of its time in its radicalism. Unlike many exponents of contemporary Alpine lighthouse architecture, the brutalist concrete rock is the heart and soul of the village.

And the Romantics? They would have found great delight in Förderer’s sublime erratic block. In the craggy rock formations, winding staircases and sacred caves, there they collide, the great Helvetic scenes of longing, the myths and modernism, the mountains and concrete. For better or worse, the concrete heart of Hérémence will beat on, strong, indestructible and beautiful. Amen.

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