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Consider the use of semiotic and phomenological design in the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin

Part 1 Dissertation 2007
Sara Tilley
University of Kent, UK
The impetus for this essay was a field trip to Berlin, where I was struck by the quiet authority of this intriguing rammed earth church, within the wider context of a city which revels in flamboyant contemporary architecture.

Just to the north of the vibrant city centre is the Chapel of Reconciliation, a demure ovoid structure designed by the young German architects, Sassenroth and Reitermann, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. For this is no ordinary church, sitting quietly on Bernauer Strasse within the footprint of its predecessor, blown up by the GDR to make way for the Berlin Wall.

The original Neo-Gothic church had become stranded in the barren No-Mans-Land of the Death Strip after 1961, cut off from its congregation whilst dictating that the border guards detour around it on their patrols. The removal of “Object number 7” was a symbolic act of defiance by the GDR, demonstrating their disregard for the West and the supremacy of The State over The Church – yet within months the Communist government was to fall and with it the Wall. As the land reverted back to the Parish, the issue was then how best to proceed…

Inspired by Umberto Eco’s distinction between the primary and secondary functions of a building , my aim in this essay was twofold: firstly to analyse the new chapel as a sacred space, considering the means by which the Protestant creed affected the formal composition and decoration, to create a venue for a 21st Century congregation; and secondly to examine the response of the building to its historical and geographical context, with particular regard to the impact made upon the visitor.

This second approach elevates an appraisal of the chapel from the confines of ecclesiastical speculation, whereby I would argue that it becomes an exemplary model of sensitive and intelligent rebuilding in the wake of traumatic events - through the dextrous application of sacred and profane architectural semiotics, the Chapel lives up to its name and becomes a physical manifestation of reunification and reconciliation.

Sara Tilley

Sara has written a short but intense narrative describing the birth, death and rebirth of the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin.

The original chapel, sitting in the 70m “Death Strip” between East and West Berlin was ‘executed’ in front of its loyal parishioners in 1985 – it was blown up on television. Sara has told this story with an undercurrent of modish semiotic referencing. She ends on a joyous note: an illustrated essay on the ‘visceral and tactile’ components of the new Chapel, celebrated in the words of Bertold Brecht’s 1948 ‘Rebuilding Song’: “Fort mit den Trummern und was Neues Hingebaut” (Good riddance to the rubble and have something new built.)

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