Vatican II was a godsend to brutalism. The Roman Catholic Church promoted its newfound modernity and progressiveness in forward-looking buildings, generously entrusting architects with a veritable carte blanche. And no diocese built more cutting-edge béton-brut homes for God than the Swiss Roman Catholic Church. Its architect of choice was Walter Maria Förderer. A trained sculptor, the Swiss radically reshaped sacral architectural form. Between 1966 and 1978 he designed ten highly expressive, futuristic concrete churches in Switzerland and Germany, assertively clashing the boundaries of architecture and sculpture. They all retain a beguiling edge to this day.
St.Johannes in Lucerne is Förderer’s church building no 2. Sitting relatively squat in a residential neigbourhood, it comprises a chapel, rectory, accommodation and a school. The exterior is standard Förderer: stacked concrete cubes interlock with cut-outs, jagged forms and cantilevered, cascading shapes, forming a polygonal shape. Where it not for the extruding cross, one could easily mistake the church for a cultural centre. Which was exactly Förderer’s point and central to his mission to connect cult and culture.
But it is the interior that makes disciples of brutalism drop to their knees. Picture the collision of a detonated Swiss WW2 alpine bunker and Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau. This type of hard-eged conrete grotto was not only new, it was monumentally and grotesquely so. Förderer clearly didn’t care to save a prayer for the modernist purists who rejected everything non-formalist, decorative and eccentric.
A 2001 revamp introduced a new colour scheme which cleverly softened the muscular elements and put the focus on the more nuanced, spiritual side of Förderer’s architecture. Tones range from cerulean to deep blue around the altar area and from tangerine to deep red. Lightness and serenity may not be included in the Ten Commandments of brutalist architecture, but stark defiance to convention is certainly in true faith. Amen.