»Pictures need walls, walls that want nothing other than to carry pictures.
Sculptures need space. And both need light.«

»Pictures need walls, walls that want nothing other than to carry pictures. Sculptures need space. And both need light.«

© Image Ingeborg Sedgley

In the year 2021 the Berlin architect, urban planner, Academy president and artist Werner Düttmann (1921-1983) would have celebrated his 100th birthday. During his lifetime he was a key figure in the cultural life of West Berlin and highly influential in various roles, shaping the face and structure of the city. His work ranges from residential buildings to public spaces, community buildings and traffic structures to outstanding church and museum buildings.

Werner Düttmann’s centenary is being honoured by a comprehensive book and a major outdoor exhibition at 28 selected locations throughout West Berlin – St. Agnes included. “The church isn’t far away,” as Werner Düttmann put it while construction was taking place, “it’s on the way.” He was commenting on the fact that the community centre of St. Agnes, which he had created, was the heart of the surrounding housing estate but not located in the middle of it. Düttmann saw the church more as a restrained yet prominent milestone, a distinctive landmark – as well as a constant invitation to gather and come closer.

With its clear, brutalist formal language and uncompromising lines, the effect of the St. Agnes ensemble on the outside space can still be experienced in exactly the same way today. Notwithstanding their enormously solid, monolithic shapes, the community spaces, church building, and twenty-meter tower are embedded in the surrounding neighbourhood with surprising discretion. In Werner Düttmann: Verliebt ins Bauen [Werner Düttmann: In Love With Building], the architect’s wife, Martina Düttmann, wrote of the aesthetic and real function of the church: “It should stand tall amid the buildings that tower over it yet still welcome people with open arms, as a community center.”

Haus Dr. Menne, 1966, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Werner-Düttmann-Archiv, Nr. 129 F. 29/2
© Ingeborg Sedgley (née Lommatzsch)

St. Agnes also successfully melds history with modernity. Düttmann specified that the walls of the aisles should be built from rubble, from the remnants of the bombed-out buildings in the neighborhood that the previous generation had known. He also designed the interior, creating a Gesamtkunstwerk that included everything, right down to the altarpiece in the Lady Chapel.

The fact that Düttmann is today considered a key protagonist of German modernist urban planning in the post-war period is due not least to buildings like St. Agnes. Düttmann created more than 70 buildings in Berlin alone: the Academy of Arts, the Brücke-Museum in Dahlem, and the Hansaviertel library among them. He thought in terms of an all-encompassing blueprint for society, a collective, seeking to create forward-thinking architecture that did away with ornament and frills and opened up the city for the service of its citizens.

Werner Düttmann lived in a grey building on a grey street, with rough rendering and white windows, built by an unknown architect. In 1952, when he reconstructed the ruin, he added nothing of his own to it—no recognizable detail, no striking colors. The building simply stood in a row of other buildings, unobtrusively, as though it had always been there.

Düttmann’s treatment of color tells us a lot about how an architect works: with a belief in striking composition or in casual understatement. The understatement in Düttmann’s architecture matches his understated use of color. It’s as though his intention was the same with every project: to make a new building look as though it had always been there, nestling beneath the massive trees, waiting to be overgrown, to let in the green from all sides—unimpeded by color. It should seem natural, as though it got there purely by chance and had been left to age naturally.

Instead of color, Düttmann filled his interiors with light, confident that it could do anything. He coaxed it into his buildings in all sorts of ways, through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, saw-toothed roofs and vertical slits. And it is light rather than shape that makes each space distinctive. The effect is further enhanced by the materials: concrete, brick, white rendering on the walls, slate, grey carpets, woodblock paving, robust concrete beams, and wooden grids on the ceilings. There are no colors as such—in the sense of decisively different tones—but the light, the warmth of the wood, and the dark, earthy floors lend the space the feel of a warm autumn afternoon. Actual color comes from the exhibits hanging on the walls […] which require nothing particular and no artificial spotlights in order to attract attention. In the churches of St. Agnes in Kreuzberg and St. Martin in Märkisches Viertel, dignified calm and purposeful understatement become almost sublime, as does the light that enters latently from above or falls onto the sides of the altar wall.

Düttmann was about sparseness, acerbity, modesty, and Prussianness—so much so that some of his structures appear almost uninviting from the outside. Only on the inside does the warmth of color, the light, and the view evoke a sense of all-round comfort for visitors.