After World War II ended, Otto Bartning devised a unique aid program for churches by means of a remarkable concept—originating from the region Neckarsteinach. And he thought out of the box to realise his intention: The highly acclaimed architect mailed out construction plans to parishes per post. The parishioners used this to assist them in the construction of their place of worship which they carried out all by themselves—in an easy kind of DIY (Do It Yourself) push fit assemblage.
“Exemplary authenticity”—with an exclamation mark at the end of the phrase—is the description given to the Mannheim Gnadenkirche (Church of Grace in Mannheim) on the webpage of the Otto Bartning Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kirchenbau (Otto Bartning’s church construction association). “Just about everything is still original in this church,” you can see the proud look on Dieter Peulen’s face when he pointed this out, the moment before he entered the church that has a modest ring to it. What is more, a discovery had been made. Even on this mildly temperate winter morning, the fabricated church still has a warm, and extremely cosy atmosphere—and the reason behind this is not only because the chairperson of the council of elders had just switched the heating on. Could it be due to the aromatically rich scent of wood emanating from the saddleback roof and gallery? Could it be because of the brightly painted walls that lend the room such a friendly ambience? Or is it the modest charm of the alter, pulpit, baptismal font and lamps that harbour an unembellished quality? It is a sure fact that one of the most interesting churches in Mannheim is also one of the most inconspicuous places of worship. The church was built in 1948, as an “emergency provisional church type B (variant with a wall built around the alter)”; this is how specialists in the field describe this type of building. The church was consecrated in 1949 and is one of the 90 or so churches in Germany that were created from the blueprints of one of the most important German Protestant church architects of the twentieth century—in an extraordinary manner.
Otto’s churches were intended to be “tents pitched up in the desert,” a statement to be taken quite literally given the fact that so many people were rendered homeless by the destruction caused by World War II. Before the National Socialists came to power, the architect born and raised in Karlsruhe (1883 – 1959) was not only a cofounder of the Bauhaus concept in cooperation with Walter Gropius; as a part of the industrial construction, he also integrated prefabricated parts and materials at an early stage into the church designs. This was to have paid off, from 1945, he had barely taken over the responsibility of the construction department of the welfare organization of the Evangelical church: Otto had developed three types of church of which the body consisting of wooden elements were to be fit in place—by the parishioners themselves. This was not only done to save money but also to gain a sense of togetherness in the community. “He never mentioned anything about provisional emergency churches,” says Dieter. Otto understood them rather to be churches constructed in times of need that have arisen from a distinctive mentality during this period—they were designed and built to stand the test of time.
The wood used to build the Gnadenkirche in Mannheim originated from Switzerland. Parishes in the U.S. donated money to build the church as a sign of reconciliation. “The church was actually supposed to be called Church of Philadelphia for this reason,” remembers Dieter. However, the locals of Mannheim were not too content about giving their church such an obvious connection to the U.S. so soon after the war. The walls were erected using red sandstone from the ruins of the evangelical construction works in the inner city. This is how the first modern church structure was erected in Mannheim after the war with the support of the World Council of Churches in Geneva and in accordance with Otto’s building outlines. These designs allowed for something new to be found in each of the four occupation zones: churches assembled from prefabricated pieces—in serial production.