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Devotion and spatial experience

Devotion and spatial experience

Devotion and spatial experience

You are invited to hike or take a pilgrimage to three sacred buildings in the Bregenzerwald, which are only accessible on foot: the chapel on the Niedere, the chapel in Krumbach-Salgenreute, and the chapel at the Wirmboden temporary summer settlement.

Vorarlberg has a rich yet under-appreciated array of sacred buildings. Although residential and public buildings tend to get all the attention, nearly all of the region’s important architects have worked on renovation projects and small-scale buildings for religious purposes at some point in their careers. This may be due to the strong position of the Catholic Church in the consciousness and public life of the people of Vorarlberg, but it may also have to do with the remarkable proximity of Vorarlberg’s avant-garde to representatives of internal church renewal movements.

The widespread approach of “ministering in earnest” among architects over the decades and their occasional ethical demands in matters of design also suited such building projects, and this practice continues even today. For example, legendary architect Clemens Holzmeister built his first church in Bregenz-Mariahilf in 1926. This round building in the spirit of the “liturgical movement” that emerged in the 19th century emphasises the community of the faithful. In general, church architecture in the 20th century shifted away from hierarchical worship towards the experience of liturgy, either communally or as a contemplative individual experience.

New approaches to church architecture in Vorarlberg

Against the resistance and cultural insistence of official church authority and socially conservative currents, sporadic sacred buildings were erected which are still appreciated as architectural achievements today. For example, by staging natural light and material in a largely vacant space, the effect on the architecture was spiritualised and transcendental. The young Hans Purin followed this model in 1960 when he rebuilt the monastery church of Mehrerau in Bregenz. At that time, he was able to inspire a generation of young priests with the radical archetype of Cistercian architecture. He had the church’s interior, which was overloaded with 19th-century fixtures, completely cleared out. He then reduced everything down to individual sacred sculptures and works of wall art, and the focus instead shifted to introspection and the experience of community.

The years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1964) were marked by numerous new modernist church buildings in keeping with this liturgical change until well into the 1970s. After that, religious architecture receded into the background of architectural development. It was not until the 1990s that the renovation of historic parish churches became more common, thus reflecting the dialogue between the old and the new. In 1989, the Mellau-born architect Helmut Dietrich provided a restrained, contemporary interpretation of a religious building with the construction of the new ‘Kau’ chapel in Mellau. Fast forward twenty years (in the meantime architecture had achieved considerable popularity in Vorarlberg) to when Hugo Dworzak provided a cheerful but formally radical contrast. He created a mobile, folding chapel measuring 2.5 by 5 metres for the fan mile of the Lustenau football stadium. The structure was a simple form with a steep gable roof and translucent covering. Thus, almost casually, a burgeoning interest in religious constructions arose. Now, in an increasingly over-regulated architectural environment, a mostly youthful generation is rethinking elementary forms of expression, including religious buildings.

Alpine chapel in honour of St. Theodul

In October 2008, Andreas Cukrowicz and Anton Nachbaur erected a votive chapel in honour of St. Theodul at the Alpe Vordere Niedere Alpine pasture above Andelsbuch. This marked the beginning of a series of contemporary chapels in the Bregenzerwald. A married couple, who ran an Alpine dairy, had put out a tender for the construction of the chapel in gratitude for a child born in good health. After a short tender process, they chose the architects, who then lent a helping hand during the construction as well. The chapel stands on an edge of the slope on a foundation of stones collected from the surrounding Alpine pasture. Erected on top of this base is a building made of upright, angular spruce wood trunks, which were sourced from the client’s own forest. Wall, ceiling and floor are made of the same material, inside and out. There are no eaves, but instead the structure of the building is bordered by a narrow rain gutter. From the path, steps lead into the sheltered entrance. Concealed above is a bell that emits sound through a grid of holes. Inside the chapel, three benches without backrests are arranged in rows, and an altar, made in the same style, stands against the end wall. Floating above is a Pomme cross cut into the beams of the end wall and filled with blue glass. Daylight streams into the room through a glass slit on the altar wall. The slit separates the roof and longitudinal walls from the altar wall and is as wide as two wooden beams of the wall. This allows morning, evening and all weather conditions to be reflected on the altar wall in the enclosed wooden hermitage.

The new Lourdes Chapel in Krumbach-Salgenreute

On 3 July 2016, the new Lourdes Chapel was solemnly christened. Together, residents and craftsmen had implemented a design by architect Bernardo Bader, who is based in Krumbach. Bader was previously responsible for the planning of the Krumbach cemetery (2005 with Rene Bechter) and the much acclaimed Islamic cemetery in Altach (2012). The simple basic form of the chapel, which replaces its dilapidated predecessor from 1880, stands on a stone foundation and features a high, steep roof entirely clad in shingles. At the entrance, the approaching hiker is greeted by a brass-framed portal beneath a high, pointed gable, which is framed on both sides by slits of light. The building exhibits geometrical surfaces and resembles a shingled crystal set against a grove of spruce and other trees. Inside, wooden structural ribs on the wooden walls subdivide the space with its high roof. In the white-glazed apse, bright light shines into the room from the front window, setting the stage for a visually suspended, historical statue of the Virgin Mary. Thus, the elemental takes shape and the space becomes both a religious stage and a compelling experience.

Chapel in honour of St. Anthony at the Wirmboden temporary summer settlement

Two years later, in August of 2016, the dedication of the new chapel in honour of St. Anthony the Hermit took place at the Wirmboden temporary summer settlement near Schnepfau. The chapel was designed by Markus Innauer and Sven Matt from Bezau. Since 1980, a sacred building had stood on the narrow plateau below the impressive Kanisfluh mountain, which was swept away by a powder-snow avalanche in 2012. The new building displays far more architectural ambition than the chapels on the Niedere and Salgenreute, even though its shape is reminiscent of that of the Theodul Chapel. During planning discussions, the design evolved from a monolithic stone building to its ultimate constructed form. The chapel was erected on a concrete base. The walls of exposed concrete were built in response to the risk of avalanches, but they are as much a sign of modern architecture as the sound hole above the entrance with a wooden door and the natural stones inlaid into the concrete walls. A narrow slit in the altar wall lets light into the interior through blue and white glass. The open roof structure is spaced at the roof ridge, creating another slit of light. The chapel displays many forms of piety: candles and flowers, a delicate metal cross and a small gallery of the dead between the wooden beams.

Three hikes as a pilgrimage to the chapels

Each chapel is unique: The Niedere is an Alpine pasture frequented by paragliders and hikers, especially at weekends. Similarly, Salgenreute is a scattered settlement on the outskirts of Krumbach, while the Wirmboden chapel stands amidst the numerous huts and barns at a temporary summer settlement that bears the same name. These three buildings embody the motif of the solitary hermitage and convey religious devotion. They stand as ideal archetypes in the landscape, situated at the terminus of easily accessible trails. Those who make the delightful hikes to the chapels, which can only be reached on foot, will experience a feeling of sanctuary in the broadest sense of the word in addition to a feeling of belonging. One also has the opportunity to experience these rural and popular devotional chapels in person – not to mention the fantastic views from the hiking trail. Both the journeys and the destinations are dedicated to happiness and devotion.

Author: Robert Fabach
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2021