“The church doesn’t stand apart from everything else,” Werner Düttmann said when he was building it, “it stands in the way.” His words highlight how the newly built parish of St. Agnes with its 5,090 m² premises—today listed as a complex—was at the heart of the new housing estate and yet did not stand at its center. Rather Düttmann saw the church and the center as unobtrusive yet prominent milestones, as distinctive markers, and as an open invitation for people to come together.
Düttmann, the greatest architect of the postwar period, who designed over seventy buildings in his hometown of Berlin, including the Akademie der Künste, the Brücke Museum in Dahlem, and the Hansaviertel library, thought in terms of a comprehensive design for society. The architecture critic Niklas Maak (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) called him “a forerunner of the collective.” It was about pioneering architecture, free from ornament and embellishment, that opened up the city to the people and made it accessible. It was the years of the social housing boom: in the six years alone in which Düttmann was Berlin’s director of urban development (1960–1966), 20,000 tenements were built. Düttmann’s goal was to strengthen the urban community and to show citizens the possibility of a true collective.
With its clear brutalist forms and distinct, uncompromising lines, the St. Agnes building complex still on has the same effect on people today as it did back then. Despite its bulky, monolithic structure, the parish center, church, and twenty-meter-high tower, spanning a total of 3,562 m², blends into the surrounding neighborhood with surprising ease. Martina Düttmann, the wife of the architect, wrote about the aesthetic and the actual function of the church in Werner Düttmann: Verliebt ins Bauen (Birkhäuser Verlag, 1990): “It should stand apart from the buildings towering above it, and yet as a parish center also greet people with open arms. It should blend secular hospitality with the sacred, the holy. And so it does.”
Unusual for postwar architecture, Düttmann grouped the entire parish center around a rectangular, leafy inner courtyard accessible from Alexandrinenstraße by way of a covered entrance. Buildings of different sizes and heights were positioned like silent watchers around the courtyard. In addition to the church, the tower, the chapel and its sacristy, the center originally housed the two-storey parish hall, including a meeting hall and an assembly hall; tucked in between them was the former clergy house with parish offices and housing for the parish priest, chaplain, and sacristan; and in the back of the former parish hall, a kindergarten.
The centerpiece, the church itself, was just as austere and reduced on the inside as it was on the outside. Instead of the gold, marble, and fresco paintings of baroque churches, the interior featured the same unfinished concrete that covers the outer facade—the clear outline of a basilica shooting up like an immense gorge. And instead of classical windows to break up the right angles of the facade, two slim window slits extended up sixteen meters from floor to ceiling behind the altar, and by the staircase to the former church gallery, two parallel bands of light along the roofline allowed the changing light to stream through and into the hall.
The forms and angles were clear-cut, the surfaces almost never-ending, and, back then, the floors covered with end grain flooring—an overwhelming sight in spatial terms. It is no wonder that the bishopric spoke proudly of a new “stronghold” at the inauguration of the church with its formidable tower on the May 16, 1966.
Düttmann, who after his time as director of urban development took up the role of president at the Akademie der Künste from 1971 to his death in 1983, managed to link history with modernity in the building of St. Agnes. For example, he built the aisle walls from bricks found in the rubble. Visible to all churchgoers, these were found amongst the remains of the bombed houses which stood here a generation earlier. As Maak writes: “The histories and tragedies of the city, the life that once was here is thus alluded to as an abstract memory, as a mural depiction of the passion of Christ and as a wailing wall.”
Today, Düttmann is seen as one of most important urban planners of postwar Germany and not least because of buildings like St. Agnes. The records of the heritage protection authority state: “The parish center St. Agnes is regarded as one of the most important church complexes from 1960s Germany. It is the embodiment of the type of modern building known as a parish center, developed in the 1960s with large churches. [...] Düttmann’s unpretentiousness coincided with a new unpretentiousness in church building.”